MARSEILLE, France -- The African proverb goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." If you can stomach the metaphor and accept "village" to mean a community of men, divided by age, ability, culture, net worth and state of mind, but sharing a common goal, then it takes a village to win a European championship.
Or, at least, to advance to the semifinal. Which is the lesson learned after Portugal defeated Poland 5-3 on penalty kicks Thursday.
Those who had pictured Portugal getting to the final four likely did so imagining Cristiano Ronaldo in a starring role. He's there -- he's the village chief, but on a humid day in Marseille, he was simply another villager.
The difference-makers were others. Like Pepe, perhaps the village bully, a man rival villages love to hate but who on this night was the defensive leader and the veteran beating heart of the side. Or Ricardo Quaresma, maybe the guy who lives at the edge of the village, the one whose life journey has been marked by wrong turns and dark times, as evidenced by the teardrop tattoo under his eye, but who was icy cool in converting the decisive penalty kick.
And, above all, the baby of the village. The guy who had more top-flight starts in his career (22) than he has years on this earth (18). The man-child who now has more man-of-the-match awards at these Euros (two) than he has starts with the national team (one: Thursday was his debut). The dynamo set to join Bayern Munich for a fee of $40 million plus a string of bonuses that could take it to twice that. The kid who became the youngest goal scorer in the knockout phase of the European Championships.
Take a bow, Renato Sanches.
All of them, though, are part of the village that showed both its limits and its tremendous character. Village elder (read: Portugal coach) Fernando Santos rightly praised every last one.
Both teams went into the game waiting for their difference-makers to make a difference. Not that Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo had not been putting in effort and providing leadership. But it's like the parable of the talents. Much is expected in return from those to whom much is given.
Santos' starting XI for Portugal featured just five holdovers from the team that played in the opener, the uber-frustrating draw with Iceland. While Portugal reshuffled, especially in midfield, Poland kept the standard shape that took them this far and confounded many a more hyped opponent. It was as if Poland coach Adam Nawalka knew Lewandowski would come good. And he was proved right within 100 seconds.
Portugal right-back Cedric Soares, chosen over Vieirinha at, somehow contrived to lose a seemingly innocuous cross-field ball in the Stade Velodrome lights. He stepped up as if to head it, then stepped back as if to chest it, then let it go right past him into the path of Kamil Grosicki, who raced to the byline and cut it back low and tight for Lewandowski to put Poland ahead.
Portugal were stunned, and Poland looked to capitalize. Lewandowski twice came close in quick succession. Arkadiusz Milik rumbled through the middle only for Pepe -- neck muscles bulging, steam rising from his shaven head -- to snuff out the danger and rally his teammates. His bellows from the back line began to be heard around the half-hour mark.
Ronaldo took his first potshot from open play. Two minutes later, Poland's Michal Pazdan tossed Ronaldo to the ground in the box. He got up, incredulous, but referee Felix Brych waved play on. Replays showed he could well have called a penalty.
This is where Portugal might have started to get nervy and disorganized. Instead, they sensed the momentum was changing, in part because the ubiquitous Sanches continued to pop up in dangerous areas and in part because the front six left Poland with very few reference points: Other than William Carvalho shielding the back and Ronaldo doing his thing up front, the other four shifted positions often and freely.
At minute 35, a back-heel from the darting Nani found Sanches at the edge of the box. He seemed to pause a beat or two, as if he was giving opponents "the eye" before unleashing a venomous finish that slipped inside the post. The teenager rushed to his bench. He was going to celebrate with the entire village.
Portugal's equalizer took some steam off the Polish sorties. Nawalka would praise Lewandowski after the game, but truth be told, he struggled to see much of the ball after the break. The game began to turn ragged. The managers would deny it later, but it seemed they were thinking of extra time and, perhaps, that's why they waited to make changes, even as matters turned sloppy and physical.
"Poland is a very special team," Santos said. "They know how to lull the opponent into a state of rest."
For Portugal, Santos sent on Joao Moutinho for Adrien Silva. Think back to the village. Moutinho is the general store owner who keeps everyone supplied and well-fed, but he ran out of supplies in the group stage, to the point that he was dropped for the Croatia game. It's a big call to make when you're talking about a 29-year-old with 88 caps. But when there's trust in the village, it's the sort of decision a village elder feels entitled to make.
Five minutes from time, Santos should have been vindicated. Moutinho did what Moutinho does, inventing a cushioned ball over the top that found Ronaldo, instinctively dashing behind the defense at the right time. (By the way, that's neither luck nor extrasensory perception: It's the chemistry you get from two guys who have played together for a long time.) If the script had been followed, Ronaldo would have calmly controlled the ball and slipped it past keeper Lukasz Fabianski. Instead, Ronaldo whiffed.
It's the kind of error that can mess with a striker's head. But not Ronaldo. More than most, he takes mistakes on the chin and moves on. It happened again two minutes into extra time, when he couldn't control a cross from an excellent position.
"You [the fans and media] just focus on the fact that he doesn't score," Santos said afterward. "But he did so many other things. He was amazing."
That may be a bit over the top. But what is not in dispute is that Ronaldo is unaffected by what happens before. Indeed, after the extra time -- which turned spiky and conservative -- ended and it came to penalties, there was no question who would go first. Four years earlier, perhaps employing some kind of game theory, Ronaldo was selected to go fifth and it never got to him. This time Portugal took no chances.
"The coach asked who wanted to go first and Cristiano immediately said he would," said Sanches. "And I said I wanted to go second. Why not? I had the confidence."
Think about it for a minute. After missing a penalty in this tournament, after blowing hot and cold, after wasting chances he normally buries, Ronaldo elected to go first. And Sanches demonstrated confidence, too -- the guy making his debut as a starter, the player his manager would later compare to Mario Coluna, whom Portuguese old-timers often mention in the same breath as Eusebio. That's confidence from the coach, knowing you can do that with one of your players and not mess with his head.
Both scored, as did the first three penalty takers for each team. After Portugal made it 4-3, Poland's Jakub Blaszczykowski saw his spot kick pawed away by Fabianski. Up stepped Quaresma, who would later say, "I had a whole country in my hands." He buried his kick and sent the village to face the winner of Wales vs. Belgium.
Nawalka pointed out that Poland were exiting the tournament without losing a single game in the 120 minutes. He's right and he ought to be proud.
It took something special to knock them out. It took a village.