Date: 9th July 2016 at 12:03pm
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All the focus for a European Championship final in Paris with a host nation involved should really mean that all the attention should be on France this Sunday.

But then no footballer steals the limelight quite like Cristiano Ronaldo; he may play for the underdogs this weekend, but it is safe to assume the eyes of the world will be on him, for better or worse.

Whilst France have an array of talented players, not even Antoine Griezmann or Paul Pogba, although this may change in the near future, comes close to matching Portugal’s star man for his ability to steal headlines and fill backpages.

Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

Portugal and Southampton defender Fonte – Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

Yet the fact that he is far and away the best player in the squad means that Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos deserves credit for helping what is an otherwise uninspiring and pragmatic squad, bar Ronaldo, to a final.

Before beating Wales in the semi-final, they hadn’t won a game. Rather importantly, they had not lost either.

But in the group stage, Portugal weren’t exactly rock solid. Their defence had a tendency to fall asleep at the wrong moments, particularly Vierinha and veteran centre-back Ricardo Carvalho. The latter may have been a top-class defender, but his best days are well behind him.

His replacement in the starting XI, José Fonte, is a perfect example of this pragmatic Portugal team outside of their big-name star.

The Southampton captain is never the first name of the top of anyone’s head when it comes to the world’s best defenders, but there are fewer trustier centre-backs.

Ronaldo may be seen as the ultimate professional who will never stop until he reaches the top, yet his compatriot shares that same work ethic; the heights Fonte will reach won’t be the same, but the distance climbed is arguably even further.

When Ronaldo broke the world transfer record to move to Real Madrid in 2009, his future international teammate was at Crystal Palace in the Championship. Whilst the former Manchester United man was scoring goals aplenty at the Bernabeu, Fonte would make the step down in January 2010 to join Southampton in League One.

Photo: Presse Sports / Offside

Ronaldo is Portugal’s all-time leading leading goalscorer and appearance maker – Photo: Presse Sports / Offside.

But rather than an unambitious move down, the centre-back felt the Saints were more likely to reach the Premier League first. It was a gamble, but the defender was right; St Mary’s hosted top-flight football for the first time in seven years in 2012, and it would be two seasons before Palace would join them.

Fonte was a mainstay of the side that ended up winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy during his first six months, then promotion out of League One in his first full season; his last-minute winner away at local rivals Brighton was an important moment in both winning promotion and securing bragging rights over Gus Poyet’s side that were very keen to stoke the flames.

It was during the Championship campaign that Fonte really started to become a hero. Whilst promotion from League One was expected, the Portuguese defender led the team to back-to-back promotions whilst having injections in his fractured right foot, so he could play the final twelve games of the season.

But despite this warrior-like ability to stand up and be counted, many questioned quite whether he could make the step up to the Premier League. But he silenced his critics, and new manager Mauricio Pochettino trusted in him just as much as Nigel Adkins did during his rise through the Football League.

It is testament to Fonte’s sheer determination that through six seasons of change, he has always been there, even with a rapid rise into European football. Each time there has been a threat to his place, he has kept that centre-back spot.

In a traumatic summer of change that was 2014, Fonte did not abandon the ship that many predicted to sink; instead, he stepped up and became Ronald Koeman’s captain. Every challenge he has risen to it and conquered it, even on the European and international stage.

Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

Fonte joined the Saints back in 2010 from Crystal Palace – Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

He may not have come from Hampshire, but he embodies what Southampton want to be as a club: they may not be the most prominent fish in the pond, but few punch further above their weight.

He wears the shirt and armband with pride, and is arguably the first player since Matthew Le Tissier to reach legend status among the Saints’ fanbase.

Six years after lifting the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in the English capital, he could be crowned a Champion of Europe. Ronaldo will steal the headlines, but Fonte won’t care less about that; all that matters will be winning in Paris by any means. The Portuguese man of war is ready for his biggest battle yet.

 
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