Portugal turning into the unbeatables
With deceptive strength in depth, underdogs' tag suits Santos' battlers
Heavy lies the favourites' tag.
The burden proved too much for Wales in the end, as it did for Portugal in 2004.
With home advantage back then, the Portuguese golden generation shrank in their own spotlight. The harsh lights of Lisbon dimmed the spirit.
Being present in the Estadio da Luz that night proved a dispiriting experience, marking the high point of anti-football and the sad end of Rui Costa and Luis Figo.
Watching those two elegant, dignified greats wander towards their devastated fans was to witness broken giants struggling to comprehend a game they no longer understood.
Greece won. Football lost. Costa and Figo were the collateral damage.
But there was another, a new hope, a wounded artist who suffered the indignity of humiliating defeat at home and vowed to return bigger, stronger and defiant.
Cristiano Ronaldo left Euro 2004 a boy and returned as a sculpted colossus, ready to launch himself into the stratosphere.
Now finally, he can take the country with him. Portugal can catch up with their brightest star; free of the shackles of expectation and ready to sustain their run of upsets.
Fernando Santos' unlikely heroes are exactly where they want to be, where they need to be - unfancied and eager to prove that every underdog has its day.
Santos was once a hard-nosed Primeira Liga defender in the 70s, when tackles were high and shinpads optional.
Now, after 30 years in various dugouts, the fuss-free coach is channelling his pragmatism into his grandest project. He's turning a limited side into an unbeatable one.
Like Portugal, he has seldom dazzled in France, content to concede attention to Antonio Conte, Marc Wilmots, Chris Coleman and next-door neighbour Vicente del Bosque, illustrious figures who all left the party early.
The media focused on Coleman's inspirational ability to maximise his resources, even though Santos was discreetly doing the same.
Almost two years ago, he took charge of a demoralised squad for the first time for a friendly against France. The venue was the Stade de France.
He outlined his ambition. In two years, he intended to be back, preparing Portugal for the Euro 2016 final. Santos kept his promise.
The 61-year-old delivered by deliberately reinforcing the opinion of others. Portugal were one Elvis and 10 session musicians, the King and the commoners, with the others trying to reach his otherworldly key.
Over-emphasising the role of the master allowed Santos to develop the apprentices and also-rans, fashioning a workmanlike (but workable) side that improved through the group stages before hitting a peak in the semi-finals.
Santos' side have transformed into the definitive representation of this tournament's overarching theme - mediocre teams being greater than the sum of their parts.
Portugal's defence shares the experience of Italy's back three if not the pedigree.
The youthful midfield core of Renato Sanches and Joao Mario mimics the heavy lifting of Paul Pogba or Toni Kroos without the same panache.
And the forward line of Ronaldo and Luis Nani makes for a decent combination that rivals Germany, France or Belgium without threatening to surpass any of them.
But collectively, they all do just enough to get by.
The finalists are essentially an industrious, defensively drilled outfit with one authentic superstar in Ronaldo and another in the making in Sanches, with able deputies in Mario and Danilo Pereira.
But does that make them the exception or closer to the norm?
Apart from Spain, organised efficiency rather than artistic supremacy has usually prevailed at the Euros.
Denmark, Greece and Germany in 1996 all benefited from an unshakeable work ethic rather than a frilly collection of inventive mavericks.
And even Spain, by 2012, had taken possession football towards something duller and darker, killing us with softly, softly approach play.
So Portugal's unexpected route to Paris should not be examined in isolation, but considered in a broader context.
The cream doesn't necessarily rise to the top at the Euros. Consistency does.
And when all else fails, Portugal have Ronaldo.
They also have an additional day's rest and were spared a humid trip to Marseille for the other semi-final. Fortune favours the underdogs.
Unlike 2004, Portugal do not carry the weight of home advantage. Nor must they endure the nationwide hysteria screaming at them from every street corner.
They are drilled, determined and quietly optimistic.
Santos' battlers might have slipped through the back door of the Stade de France, but they could return home on an open-top bus.
(Cristiano Ronaldo 50, Luis Nani 53)
By the numbers
Cristiano Ronaldo's 122 shots at Euros Finals are more than twice as many as any other player since 1980, with Thierry Henry's 52 the closest.
Nine of Cristiano Ronaldo's 11 goals at major tournaments have come after half-time.
Portugal always have a game plan, an attacking game plan and a defensive game plan. We know we aren't the best in the world, but we also know that it will be difficult for anyone to beat us. We have been an excellent team on the pitch who are sometimes pleasant to watch and sometimes less pleasant to watch.
— Portugal coach Fernando Santos