All eyes were drawn to Cristiano Ronaldo when the final whistle blew after 120 gruelling minutes. The injured captain burst into tears on the touchline as the emotion hit him. Portugal had won their first major trophy. His 12-year wait for redemption was complete.
On the pitch Éder, the unlikely match-winner who drove a low shot into the bottom corner from 25-yards to beat Hugo Lloris in the 109th minute, was mobbed by his team-mates.
This was the culmination of two stories: The of the iconic great of the game finally achieving the one thing missing in the most dramatic of fashions; and the underdog tale of a player shunned by the media and the public becoming the owner of the most famous moment in the country’s footballing history.
But as the hosts sunk to the ground in exhaustion and disappointment on the Stade de France pitch, there was one man in particular left jumping with his victorious team mates, who two years ago could barely dream of such a thrill.
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José Fonte’s rise to the top began six years ago. On 9 January 2010 he joined Southampton from Crystal Palace for roughly £1.2 million on an initial three-and-a-half year deal. There was nothing remarkable about this move, simply a centre-back moving between two well-established clubs after proving himself capable over 92 appearances in England.
However, at the time Southampton were not only a League One club, but one mired in financial doubt after going into administration. A 10-point penalty had hit Saints hard. A 2-1 defeat to Colchester United immediately preceded Fonte’s unveiling. But the man himself saw only potential and the opportunity for growth. After leading a nomadic career in his native Portugal, he’d found a home.
His positive outlook was based partly on recently appointed manager Alan Pardew and chairman Nicola Cortese, and partly on the extensive squad rebuilding, which included the signings of Rickie Lambert, Dean Hammond, Raidi Jaidi and Jason Puncheon.
“I’ve made a decision and I’m very happy with it,” Fonte said upon arrival. “I’ve come here with a purpose, which is to help this club move to the top divisions. I want to play in the Premier League and I think I can do that quickest by moving here.”
The 26-year-old made his Saints debut alongside fellow new signings Jon Otsemobor and Danny Seaborne – players who most recently turned out for Tranmere Rovers and Partick Thistle respectively.
With a clear, defined goal driving him, Fonte settled into Southampton life. He quickly becoming a fixture of the side. And although Saints narrowly missed out on the play-offs, finishing seventh, a 4-1 victory over Carlisle in front of 73,476 people at Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final showed that the club and Fonte were moving in the right direction.
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The march up the leagues began in earnest the following season. Fonte made 48 appearances to help Saints progress from League One with the best defensive record in the division in 2010-11, and they didn’t waste any time in the Championship either.
By 2012 Fonte was a Premier League player and his move from Palace was vindicated. He’d formed the bedrock of an upwardly-mobile side. He was where he wanted to be. But he wasn’t content just yet; what he desired most was to represent his country.
Nigel Adkins, who had overseen the back-to-back promotions was replaced by Mauricio Pochettino and a 14th place finish was secured in 2012-13. By now Fonte was a fan-favourite – he’d excelled against journeymen, now he was competing with the world’s best.
Fonte’s personal journey was perfectly entwined with Southampton’s. Through sheer will and determination he’d placed himself firmly in the eye of the storm and better was still to come. Pochettino’s team, full to bursting with young, talented academy players and interspersed with those who’d helped get the club there, finished a remarkable eighth in the Premier League in 2013/14.
Fonte was there every step of the way. But still no call came.
With Kelvin Davis approaching the end of his career, Fonte was named team captain in August 2014. The club had undergone a great deal of change. The tabloids cried meltdown as Pochettino and several star players were whisked away.
Fonte’s time at Southampton has been defined by perpetual motion. Success turns clubs like Southampton into prey. Managers and players came and went. A new training ground was built. But Fonte has served as one of the few constants.
Finally, the call came. His loyalty was rewarded. Southampton were flying high in the upper reaches of the Premier League table under Ronald Koeman and on 3 October 2014, just shy of his 31st birthday, Fonte received the news he’d always dreamed of: he had been selected for a Portugal match – a friendly with France at the Stade de France.
He wasn’t to know it then, but France’s national stadium was to carry great significance for his future.
Fernando Santos was only a month into the job as manager and Fonte, alongside Cedric Soares, Adrien Silva and João Mario, had all been beneficiaries of a fresh start for Portugal. So often Fonte had been one of those left behind on international breaks as his team-mates received recognition. Now he was finally in the fold.
“It’s every player’s dream,” Fonte said before immediately asserting typical ambition. “I’ve worked very hard for this for a long time, but now I’ve got the opportunity the real work starts because I want to keep my place in the squad.”
He didn’t make it onto the pitch at the Stade de France this time, but a month later he made his international debut at Old Trafford, helping keep a clean sheet against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. He’d arrived.
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Fonte starred alongside Pepe and Ronaldo
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Claude Puel will become the fifth full-time Southampton manager that Fonte has served underneath Southampton when the coming season begins. Each and every one has valued the Portuguese defender’s influence. His intelligence, strong all-round game and leadership qualities make him the ideal man to build around.
Centre-back partnerships are built on consistency of selection. Time is required to develop a relationship and an understanding. But at a club constantly evolving, Fonte has been afforded no such privilege.
Over six seasons he’s been partnered by Jaidi, Jos Hooiveld, Maya Yoshida, Dejan Lovren, Toby Alderweireld and Virgil van Dijk. No matter who he’s been alongside, he’s been solid. He’s improved with every game that has gone by.
As Fonte has grown stronger, so has Southampton. From the outside improvement has appeared unlikely. But from inside the Saints bubble both Fonte’s and the club’s progression has not come as a surprise. A seventh place finish was achieved in 2014-15, before the club promptly broke all the records set the season before with a sixth place finish in the campaign just gone.
Fonte was at the peak of his powers. He, like others who had been swept along by the tide at Southampton, could have looked elsewhere to further their personal ambitions. Fonte stayed. He valued the club, and the club valued him. He was right where he wanted to be.
“This is where I feel happy and where I’ve been very successful,” he said upon signing a contract extension in October 2015 – the third of his stay. “This is where I want to be and where I want to win.”
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But after the hard graft of 14 years of club football, of inching his way up the slippery slope, it seemed Fonte might miss the opportunity to make his mark on the international stage.
Santos had plumped for the experience of Ricardo Carvalho alongside Pepe in the centre of defence for Portugal’s Euro 2016 group games. Fonte watched on as three uninspired draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary came and went.
In all previous incarnations of the European Championships, Fonte would have packed his things and returned to England without playing a single minute, but UEFA’s decision expand the tournament to 24 sides allowed Portugal through in third place.
Granted passage through to play the impressive Croatia in the last-16, Santos brought Fonte in to play alongside Pepe, who had overcome an injury scare. He was ready to make a difference.
“It means everything to me to be here,” Fonte said before the tie. “I’ve always had the ambition, the desire and the belief I could get here. As soon as I reached the Premier League, I thought I’d be closer to my dream, my target, to play for the national team.”
Having conceded three against Hungary just three days before, the side suddenly began to resemble the resolute, well-organised one which came to define the knock-out stages and it was arguably Fonte’s promotion to the starting XI that was the turning point for Portugal. The 38-year-old Carvalho looked off the pace in the previous games. In his stead, and with Pepe shining alongside him, Fonte put into practice his now-refined game.
An extra-time goal from Ricardo Quaresma saw off Croatia, before Poland were dispatched on penalties in the following round. Wales, riding high on the crest of a wave of optimism, but without the suspended Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, were next. Portugal had hit their stride. Their defence now looked impregnable. Wales managed just three shots on target – all long-range efforts from Gareth Bale as goals from Ronaldo and Nani sent them through to the final.
France were the pre-tournament favourites, playing at home with a swelling feeling of pride and support behind them. All looked set for a third straight home competition win for Les Bleus. But Portugal came to spoil the party.
Éder’s bolt from the blue left 11 nervy minutes to be negotiated. Fonte stood firm, making eight clearances – more than any other player on the pitch. As Pepe pressed high, he swept up behind, denying the French at every step.
When Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle the vast majority of fans inside the packed Stade de France were left bitterly disappointed. But for 23 players a dream had been realised.
Once the initial elation, team celebration and swarming cameras had died down, Fonte must have allowed himself a moment of reflection. When Portugal had reached the semi-finals four years previously he was yet to make a single appearance in the Premier League. He had timed his charge well – his appearance in the final was just his 16th cap overall.
Now he had become a European champion and become the only player to complete the illustrious Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – European Championship double. It is a unique, if slightly strange achievement, but one that perfectly conveys Fonte’s career progression – one of which he is immensely proud.
“My background made me what I am,” Fonte told the press. “It was one of hard work and suffering, but one I’m very proud of.”
Éder was the hero. Ronaldo took the headlines. But it was Fonte’s story that received the most fitting ending on 10 July in the Stade de France.
By Felix Keith. Follow @felixkeith