Portugal relishes role of villain in final act of Euro 2016

Perhaps to better portray the villain in the European Championship final against host France, Portuguese players have revived a mindset famously glorified by fans of English club Millwall decades ago.

“No one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us, we don’t care,” sang fans to the tune of “Sailing,” a song popularized by Scottish rocker Rod Stewart in the 1970s. A notorious hooligan reputation and grim style of play condemned Millwall to a villain’s role, and many years later at Euro 2016, for different reasons Portugal has been cast as the bad guy. More than once.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been his brilliant and infuriating self. He seems to wave his arms and complain every time he hits the ground, and while sometimes his case is valid, it all gets a bit tiresome as the fortunes of other teams rise and fall. Portugal’s run to the final just hasn’t been as interesting as the fall of Spain, another embarrassment for England, the seemingly inevitable collapse of Belgium, and uplifting upsets reeled off by Iceland and Wales.

Until it vanquished valiant Wales in the semifinals, Portugal hadn’t held a lead in regulation. After tying all three of its group games to finish third, it scored late in extra time to down Croatia, 1-0 in the round of 16, and eliminated Poland on penalties after a 1-1 tie to set up a showdown with one of several teams to light up the competition by punching above its weight.

Portugal took advantage of a Welsh team sorely missing Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, both suspended, and by winning, 2-0, assured its place as the less popular finalist regardless of opponent. When France derailed the German juggernaut by the same score to assure a festive few days leading up to the final in Paris, and several more days of utter jubilation should the home team clear the final hurdle, the Portuguese camp took on a bunker mentality.

“We don't care about them,” said midfielder Joao Mario, channeling at least a bit of Millwall, to journalists Friday. “We don't want to win to have our revenge, we want to win for the fans. We above all believe in ourselves, the coach was the first one to transmit this spirit. There will always be criticism but we believe in ourselves.”

Head coach Fernando Santos and his players are getting no credit from neutrals for its spirit and belief. It had to rally against Iceland (1-1) and Hungary (3-3) to earn ties -- the Austria game ended goalless – and survived long, anxious periods against both Croatia and Poland, which scored in second minute but was then blanked for nearly two hours by a Portuguese defense that except for the Hungarian hiccup has proven tough to crack.

It shut out Wales despite the absence of Real Madrid stalwart Pepe, who is racing to recover from a thigh strain, and Monaco veteran Ricardo Carvalho, who was suspended. Bruno Alves replaced Pepe against Wales and could do so again Sunday in the Stade de France.

Pepe, 33, did not train with his teammates Friday but worked with a trainer. A rough, robust centerback is never popular among opposing fans and players, and Pepe already wears the villain’s cloak in the minds of many observers.

He served a 10-match ban in 2009, two years after joining Real, for kicking, studding and fighting with several opponents in a game against Getafe. He stepped on Lionel Messi’s hand during a Clasico against Barcelona four years ago. Head-butting Thomas Mueller in a World Cup 2014 group match earned him a red card.

More controversy tainted Portugal prior to the Wales game. In an interview, former Auxerre coach Guy Roux stated that Portugal midfielder Renato Sanches, scorer of the goal against Poland, is much older than his listed age of 18. According to Roux, he is “23 or 24.” The media and Internet jumped all over a story that apparently really wasn't much of one, but roiled the cyberworld nonetheless.

The confusion stems from the fact though Sanches was born in Lisbon in 1997, the birth wasn’t registered until five years later. Sanches’ parents, both African immigrants, split up shortly after he was born and not until his father returned to Lisbon in 2002 was the birth officially registered.

"Everyone knows Renato Sanches," said Santos. "He was born in Portugal like I was, and registered like I was. He is 18, I am 61. This is a joke."

Maybe all this tumult will forge an even stronger, “us-against-them” mentality when Portugal takes on France, and much of the world, in an attempt to claim its first major international trophy.

“The key is believing, never stop believing, correcting mistakes, keeping strong, staying together even in the not so good moments, like in the group stage,” said Joao Maria. “Keeping solid, we were very happy to qualify. We believe in our colleagues next to us - this is the spirit that brought us here.”

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