Victory, In the Streets of Lisbon

(Photo by Jim Ruland)

I’m writing this from the intersection of Avenida Dom Carlos I and Rua das Francezinhas and all I hear are car horns and people chanting.

Portugal has beaten France in the UEFA European Championship 1-0 and the people of Lisbon are celebrating.

It was a spectacular upset. France was favored to win 3-1. Portugal has never won the championship before. And their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, was injured and left the game 24 minutes into the contest. Eder, the player who scored the game’s only goal, is a back up player that the Daily Mail characterizes as “a 28-year-old, who plays for French club Lille after a largely unglamorous career.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

This year the tournament was widened to include more teams and a number of unheralded nations advanced. Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Wales all had their turn at a Cinderella story.

Last Wednesday, Portugal defeated Wales while wearing mint and pistachio colored unis, vaulting them into the finals. The prevailing view was they’d get mopped up by the heavyweights.

That didn’t happen.

I’m here in Lisbon with my wife, Nuvia, attending a literary conference, with my friend John, and we’ve had a front row seat to the drama.

The apartment we’ve rented sits on the second floor and overlooks a small beer garden on the campus of the Lisbon School of Economics and Management, which sits behind the Assembly of the Republic.

Even though the match against Wales was being televised on a big screen in the Placa do Comercio, I was still feeling jet-lagged and decided to watch the game at the apartment. Each shot on goal or block by the keeper was celebrated by the boisterous crowd in the beer garden below. When they won, we went downstairs and joined the celebration.

Then, when France beat Germany on Thursday in a game in which they were largely outplayed, Portuguese felt better about their chances.

But no one in the international football community seriously believed that Portugal would win. They had a chance, sure. All teams have a chance. As John put it, “Football fans around the world think of Portugal as Ronaldo and the ten dwarves.”

Not anymore.

Did the Portuguese think they would win?

Hard to say.

The Portuguese character is affable, pragmatic, and reserved. As a country still suffering the slings and arrows of the world financial crisis, a certain amount of fatalism is both expected and forgiven.

All of this was on display at the NOS Alive music festival that we attended. The festival spanned three days and featured the likes of Arcade Fire and Radiohead. The night we went we saw the Chemical Brothers, the Pixies, Soulwax, and the reanimated corpse of Robert Plant.

It was easily the mellowest music festival I’ve ever attended. There were no spasms of violence. No gross excess of inebriation. No pools of urine or vomit. No blood. The food was priced no differently than in other places around town and the beer was only slightly more expensive.

The most upsetting thing about the festival was the drone that flew overhead and the sea of plastic cups at our feet. A breeze blew in from across the river and the air was perfumed with second-hand marijuana smoke.

In other words, a stress-free night.

At the entrance, a neon sign read THE DREAM IS REAL. On the other side of the fairgrounds another sign declared IT WAS ALL A DREAM. This dichotomy epitomizes the people of Portugal: the optimism to dream in the face adversity, the pessimism to doubt it will truly come to pass.


Naturally I bet on the game.

I bet John ten euros that Ronaldo would be shut out. Figuring that if Ronaldo was held scoreless, then Portugal would lose, I bet him another ten euro that France would prevail, even though I wanted Portugal to win. If either one of us won both bets, the loser would kick down another fiver.

25 euro.

So I was particularly interested when at the 17-minute mark Ronaldo got Malachi crunched by a pair of Frenchmen and Ronaldo’s knee bent in ways the human anatomy wasn’t designed.

The moment was memorialized on camera by a moth that alighted on Ronaldo’s eyebrow like a scene in a movie where the animal kingdom offers comfort to the wounded hero.

A weird thought occurred to me: What if that wasn’t a moth? What if the grub that’s been living inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s brain and controls all of his actions finally hatched, leaving him a lifeless husk?

Anyway, Ronaldo came back into the game after a few minutes. However, at around 24 minutes Ronaldo lay down on the grass and was promptly carried off on his shield, so to speak.

Now it was up to the ten dwarves.

The French team fired shot after shot at the Portuguese goal, but the keeper, Rui Patricio, stood tall and blocked them all. And when he missed the kicks sailed high or went wide, clanging off the post or crossbar.

The second half ended with the score tied 0-0 and at no point in the game did it look like Portugal was going to win.

I thought that if the game came down to penalty kicks, perhaps Portugal would have the advantage as the French keeper had done very little and was likely cold.

Sometime during the first period of extra time, the momentum shifted. Now it was the Portuguese side that attacked the goal and putting pressure on the goalie.

Five minutes into the second and final extra period, Eder made the shot heard around the Old World.

We watched the match at our apartment again and the sound from the TV was drowned out by the noise from the beer garden. It sounded like bedlam. Shouts. Cheers. Jubilation. The yelling gave way to song. Someone started up his motorcycle and revved his engine in tandem with chants of POR-TU-GAL! POR-TU-GAL!

I’ve never been so happy to lose a bet.

We went immediately to the Praca to join the celebration. A procession of middle-aged women walked down the sidewalk banging pots and pans. People were singing and dancing, laughing and chanting. Cars zoomed down the street, blaring car horns and waving flags. When the traffic bottlenecked, people jumped out of their cars and hugged each other. Parents let their kids sound the horns of parked cars. People carried their friends on their shoulders. Down in the square they climbed atop the statues. They posed for pictures, draped in scarves, wearing flags like capes. They congregated around the lights of television cameras and stood behind news broadcasters and participated in the time-honored tradition of acting like goons on TV. The drone of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” which has been wholeheartedly embraced by the international football community, provided the background music. They danced and danced and danced.

In spite of all this excitement, in keeping with the Portuguese character, the celebration, as joyful as it was, never came close to getting out of control. No one set any fires or fought with the police or flipped over cars, and some of these cars are tiny, just begging to be flipped.

Not tonight.

The people were peaceful. While the news from America has been dominated by scenes of police decked out like stormtroopers, in Lisbon, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, the only police I saw were directing traffic.

Two hours after the match ended, we came back to the apartment. As we made our approach we saw a white-haired man standing on the corner in front of the Assembly of the Republic, waving the flag of Portugal. He’s probably been dreaming of this moment all of his life and now it’s here.

For him, for Lisbon, for all of Portugal, the dream is real.

(Photo by Jim Ruland)
(Photo by Jim Ruland)


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Jim Ruland is a fan of the New York Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his daughter’s soccer team. He is the author of the novel Forest of Fortune, inspired by his experience working at an Indian casino in Southern California.