Antoine Griezmann’s stylish impressionism has lit up Euro 2016 as much as the La Tour Eiffel and if Les Bleus do prevail at the Stade de France against Portugal tomorrow night, you can bet your last centieme that his name will be ringing out around the arrondissements of Paris.
Every tournament needs a superstar and we have one in the sublimely-skilled Atletico Madrid forward, who possesses deadly goalscoring traits to boot with his delicious dinked finish against Iceland in the quarter-final displaying the thoroughbred mark of sheer, unadulterated class.
Yet while finishing off a wondrous tournament in fitting style by helping France claim their third major football honour on home soil would catapult Griezmann towards the current pantheon of the world’s best, he faces an opponent who is very much the real deal in that respect.
Strutting, scintillating, moody and magnificent, Cristano Ronaldo – like his great rival, Lionel Messi – is seeking to guild a career from the God’s with solid gold lettering, by way of leading his nation to overdue glory.
That represented something which Messi – who retired from international football recently in the wake of missing in a penalty shootout as Argentina lost a fourth major final in nine years in their Copa America loss to Chile – painfully failed to do where the likes of Maradona, Pele, Zidane and Beckenbauer fared rather better.
But it is the subplot revolving around Ronaldo and Griezmann and not Ronaldo and Messi which is perhaps just as intriguing tomorrow with the pair locking horns in a major footballing showpiece for the second time in 43 days after the all-Madrid Champions League final in Milan on May 28.
The events in the semi-finals in Lyon and Marseille this week heightened the individual contest even further, with Ronaldo equalling Michel Platini’s record of nine goals in the European Championships with his majestic header in the win over the gallant Welsh. What other player in the tournament could have scored that sort of goal?
The following night at the Stade Velodrome – a stadium where as one commentator put it, the French do not just expect to win, but must win – Griezmann fired a riposte, becoming the first player since Platini to hit six goals in one Euros competition in the process with his double downing Germany, 2-0, as the host country finally beat their tournament nemesis.
A repeat would elevate Griezmann to the same table as the world’s very best.
For his part, Ronaldo is seeking to keep the current order intact and ward off any pretender to his throne as Europe’s finest, and eliminate another rival for the time being, something he managed on Wednesday against Real Madrid team-mate Bale.
As for the overall pressure, it’s mainly French. After ‘victoire’ on home soil in the European Championships of 1984 and World Cup 1998, France have an illustrious past to live up to with the weight of recent history also weighing on their shoulders.
With the tears of a nation barely dry after the sickening terrorist atrocities in Paris in November, the exploits of the French, led by Monsieur Griezmann and Dmitri Payet, have replenished the lustre and self-confidence of a nation.
Tears of joy flowing down the Champs-Elysees late tomorrow would provide symmetry and many a neutral will be metaphorically draping themselves in the red, white and blue tricolore of France when kick-off arrives.
Just like in their joyous Euro’ 84 campaign, France face Iberian opponents in the showpiece in Paris after beating Spain 2-0 in the final 32 years ago, with Portugal conscious of their own fateful piece of European Championship history on home turf.
At their own tournament in 2004, they famously lost out to Greece in the final in Lisbon, with that successful template of the Greeks being not dissimilar to the current Portuguese crop.
Aside from the brilliance of Ronaldo, Portugal have relied on pragmatism and sound organisation with their manager Fernando Santos making no apologies for winning ugly, just as the Greeks did, without being bestowed with the footballing gifts of a Ronaldo 12 years ago.
And why should he? Portugal may have, incredibly, only won one game in normal play so far this tournament, but will be remembered as winners above every other country if they prevail in Paris.
A shock victory would not only cast aside Portugal’s bridesmaids tag, but also provide considerable karma against a side who they have lost their last 10 matches against, dating back to 1975.
Particularly grievous losses arrived in the Euro 2000 semi-finals and in the last four of the 2006 World Cup. A late Zinedine Zidane penalty gave the French an extra-time win in Brussels in 2000 and ‘Zizou’ was also spot-on to eliminate the Portuguese at the last four stage of the World Cup six years later in Munich.
Both were rudimentary victories lacking in elan, with today’s France more pleasing on the eye and perhaps more beloved.
While it cannot be said the French class of 1998 who triumphed in the World Cup under Aimé Jacquet were not a successful unit, the true Gallic sporting spirit was epitomised by the likes of Michel Platini and Alain Giresse in ‘84, with the current side showing traits of that under Didier Deschamps.
Perhaps, all things considered, France’s most perfect moment arrived not in beating Brazil to lift the World Cup in 1998, which was cathartic more than anything else.
Neither was it in defeating the Spanish in the European showpiece 12 years earlier either in a final best remembered for a horrendous error from Spain keeper Luis Arconada, who let a free-kick from Platini horribly squirm under him.
The moment that France will forever treasure perhaps came in Marseille in an unforgettable Euro 1984 semi-final against the same opposition who they again face tomorrow – Portugal.
The celebrations of Platini after netting a dramatic extra-time winner in the 119th minute to seal a remarkable 3-2 win represent arguably the most iconic moment in French footballing history bar none.
It was a match which was also remembered by fans across the globe to this day, while providing one of John Motson’s most famous moments in commentary.
His boyish delight in stating “I’ve not seen a match like this in years!”, after Platini scored the winner struck a chord with millions of enchanted viewers.
How nice and maybe fitting if something resembling an encore would transpire tomorrow night in Paris.