Griezmann v Ronaldo - a fantastic final showdown
The final showdown between Ronaldo and Griezmann promises to be intriguing
There were two boys. One was considered too small, the other too skinny. Both believed in their talent. Others didn't.
Antoine Griezmann was a diminutive dynamo struggling to be seen or heard above the snarling, sinewy musclemen, with shoulders the width of the River Seine, coming off the French production line.
Cristiano Ronaldo was an unlikely lad from Madeira, a Portuguese islander with prodigious talent, but cursed with the legs of a flamingo, like pieces of string flapping in the breeze.
Both were expected to fail. Neither listened to the dissenting voices.
Whatever happens at the Stade de France on Monday morning (Singapore time), vindication is already theirs. Anything else should be considered a bonus.
The victors are yet to be determined, but the tournament has already won.
Euro 2016 gets the final it dared to dream of a fortnight ago, when a bloated format threatened to self-destruct, destroyed by its own gluttony.
The valiant hosts take on the romantic underdogs, where a chiselled legend faces a cherished loved one, the battle between two boys who became masters of their universe.
The final between France and Portugal represents the triumph of the scrawny kids who would be king.
This is one for the supposed runts of the litter, those left against the playground wall, rejected in favour of the taller, bigger bruisers.
Do not take their appearance in Paris for granted, or consider it the inevitable outcome of natural selection.
Neither Griezmann nor Ronaldo should be in the final.
The French, and coach Didier Deschamps in particular, took a while to warm to Griezmann's artistic attributes.
It's been the story of his life. Outsiders had to state the obvious merits of Griezmann's case to sceptical Frenchmen.
When he was 13, the undeveloped forward was handed a piece of paper from a stranger and told to open it only when he got home.
The note offered him a trial. The scout was Spanish. Real Socieded saw beyond the French obsessiveness with physical mass and glimpsed his monstrous potential.
Until then, Griezmann's fledgling journey had been littered with broken promises and crushing rejections. He was labelled too small to succeed.
The Spaniards saw things differently. For the first time, but certainly not the last, the French had failed to appreciate Griezmann's gifts.
Meanwhile, the merciless serial winners at Manchester United were guilty of doing the same.
While Griezmann cried himself to sleep, a teenager struggling to adapt to a new culture, climate and language in Spain, United legends were making fun of the Portuguese urchin with less skin on the bone than a chicken wing.
Rio Ferdinand later admitted that the old guard endlessly taunted Ronaldo, the waif who called himself a winger but looked like a charity appeal.
But Ronaldo didn't ignore the jibes. He absorbed them, each one fuelling his resolve to lift more weight, crunch more abs, run faster and jump higher until, one day, his nation depended on his elevation to out-jump the Welsh defence and kiss the sky.
Ronaldo's gravity-defying header was made in Lyon, but born in Madeira and Manchester, its power matched by a man's persistence.
Ronaldo fashioned a superstar from the inside out, literally and psychologically building an intimidating colossus that could out-run and out-reach opponents in debilitating contests and steer his flagging countrymen towards the final.
Griezmann didn't need bigger biceps, but an imposing stature. The teenager who would grow no taller than 1.70 metres had to convince others that he was a towering terror on the pitch.
At Real Socieded, Spanish and Uruguayan teammates toughened him up and taught him how to outwit lumbering centre backs at set-pieces. Height was less important than timing. The Republic of Ireland defence realises that now.
At Atletico Madrid, coach Diego Simeone emphasised militaristic drills, until Griezmann appeared to develop equine blood.
His huge lung capacity allowed him to endure long campaigns on several trophy fronts.
Bigger defenders were less relevant if they couldn't catch him. Size really didn't matter. Iceland and Germany chased a shadow.
And yet, despite an astonishing 32 goals in Spain last season, Griezmann still had to shake off that stubborn stereotype.
Deschamps liked men of muscle, midfielders designed in his own image. At best, Griezmann was a wide man permitted to cut inside occasionally.
He lacked the strength to crush an opponent's spine. But his teammates thought differently. A meeting was called and fate intervened. Injuries, suspensions and a common consensus finally convinced Deschamps to hand No. 10 duties to his slender forward.
Six goals and two assists later, Griezmann is on course for the Golden Boot and a place in the French pantheon.
Ronaldo is already there. With three goals and three assists, he continues to redefine his own legacy.
At the Stade de France, they will share a pitch and an uplifting backstory, the little guys who refused to accept rejection or succumb to ridicule.
In the final, no one else will walk taller.
BY THE NUMBERS
10 Portugal have lost their last 10 games against France dating back to 1978.
6 France forward Antoine Griezmann, the Euro 2016 top scorer with six goals, has matched the tally achieved by Thierry Henry at European Championship Finals.
Deschamps: We have won nothing yet
France may have ousted rivals Germany for the first time in 58 years but it will mean nothing if they lose Monday morning's (Singapore time) Euro 2016 final against a Portugal team that have had more recovery time, said Didier Deschamps.
Two goals by Antoine Griezmann and a strong defensive unity saw the host nation home against a German side that were dominant yet unable to break through in the final third of the pitch.
It sets up an intriguing meeting on Monday morning with Portugal, who have lost their last 10 games against France going back to 1978.
"We have three days before the final, it's very short so we have to savour this victory," Deschamps said after yesterday morning's 2-0 win over world champions Germany.
"It's an important step forward but the most important step is Sunday.
"We're going to do everything in our power to go into Sunday's game in the best possible condition."
Deschamps, who met reporters much later than expected, said he was delayed as he soaked up some of the atmosphere after France defeated Germany in a major competition for the first time since the 1958 World Cup.
"It's an excellent result and it's been a long time since we beat Germany, but it gives us nothing today. There is now a title to play for against Portugal," he added.
The coach, who won the European Championship as a player in 2000, bemoaned the calendar that gives his players one day less to recover than Portugal.
"Just because we are at home and beat Germany doesn't give us extra powers. They believe in themselves and we believe in ourselves too," explained Deschamps.
Thanking the passionate fans in Marseille, who gave his side a bit extra when they were in difficulty, Deschamps said he hoped the win would give the French population something to cheer after a difficult period.
The 2-0 win was the same as when the two sides met in Paris in November when Islamist militants struck at the Stade de France national stadium and other sites across Paris.
"It's a great emotion, we had to suffer but never gave up and that's great for me. This is a great story, the players wrote history by knocking out Germany," added Deschamps.
"We don't have the power to solve people's problems, but we can gave them a bit so they can forget their worries.
"We generate passion and fervour, we can see that and in France today we gave them a little joy."
English ref for final
English referee Mark Clattenburg yesterday was named as the man in charge of Monday morning's (Singapore time) Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal.
European football's governing body Uefa has called on the 41-year-old's experience for the championship decider at the Stade de France.
He has already overseen three matches - the first-round games between Belgium v Italy, Czech Republic v Croatia, and the last-16 clash between Switzerland v Poland.
In May, Clattenburg refereed the Champions League final between Real and Atletico Madrid.
He becomes only the second referee after Pedro Proenca in 2012 to officiate at both the Champions League and European Championship Finals. - AFP.