As one of the more experienced players in the squad, Cedric’s big-game know-how could be vital as the season enters the final straight. In this exclusive interview with the matchday programme, the defender tells us about how he still draws on the experience of winning the biggest game in European football six years ago.
There can’t be many more intimidating experiences than playing away to the host nation in the final of a major international tournament. And there can’t be many more satisfying outcomes than claiming a famous win in front of that passionate home support.
That’s exactly what happened to Cedric back in 2016, when he helped Portugal to European Championship glory in a remarkable final in Paris.
Our defender was 24 years old at the time, and a mainstay of the national team that had defied the odds to reach the final in France – then exceeded all expectations to lift the trophy, despite losing talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to injury in the first half.
For Cedric it was a defining moment in his career, and the memory helps put all other hostile or intimidating atmospheres into perspective.
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“Of course, playing in that game was the biggest atmosphere I’ve played in,” he begins. “You couldn’t say one word to the guy next to you, because you just couldn’t hear anything. Throughout the whole game it was like that. It was fantastic.
“Even during the warm-up before I was like ‘this is massive’. It was crazy, even before the game, you feel the pressure because first you are playing for your country, which always brings a lot of responsibility. It’s your people and everyone comes to you before, every single member of your family sends you a message.
“But overall you’re really happy to be at that point where you could fight for first place in the tournament. Then being anxious and nervous is part of the game as well. That’s normal, it’s what players need to feel before the games anyway.
“Personally I like to feel some tension before a game, but of course the Euros final was a bit extra! In the end it was a very positive experience – the biggest game of my career so far.”
Portugal had squeaked through the group stage, finishing third with three draws out of three, before Cedric was installed in the starting line-up for the rest of the tournament. A late extra-time win over Croatia secured a place in the last eight, where they defeated Poland on penalties. In the semi-finals they saw off Wales 2-0 and Cedric kept his place for the final against hot favourites France.
The game was staged in the Stade de France, Paris – the same city in which les Bleus had won the European Championships in 1984 and World Cup in 1998. Hopes were high in France of another famous triumph.
“The coach Fernando Santos used that opportunity to turn it around on them,” Cedric recalls. “They already had the bus ready for the celebration parade afterwards, there were a lot of things like that going on. Basically everyone said that France was going to win so we used that to our advantage. We turned it around to motivate the team in the right direction.
“At the same time the coach tried to take the pressure off us and told us to enjoy the moment. He said that if you don’t treat it as a unique moment in your life, you won’t be able to enjoy it. This is exactly what the team did. We enjoyed every moment like it would be the last one. You want to go 100 per cent so you cannot demand anything else from your teammates.”
After the national anthems had played, the first chance of the game was carved out by Cedric. Just three minutes in, his long pass found the advancing Nani, who lifted his shot over. Cedric admits though that for a long time his memories of the night were sketchy.
“Yes, for a few years afterwards I didn’t have any memory at all of the game! I just memorised the goal and everything was about that moment. But since then I’ve watched it back a few times and now I remember the whole game and every single action. When you watch it back, it all comes back to you, but for a while the whole experience was so intense that you can’t take it all in. I think your memory switches off in the game because you are working so hard to concentrate, that everything else shuts off. You are just focussed, and about 10 or 15 minutes into the game the pressure lifts and you just play.”
But not long after that, Cedric and his teammates had to watch as Cristiano Ronaldo – who would be named as World Player of the Year for the fourth time a few months later – was stretchered off in tears.
“For a while we were a bit all over the place,” Cedric, who has 34 caps for Portugal admits. “For 10 minutes on the pitch we were like ‘how are we going to play now? What’s the formation?’ The gameplan changed and the characteristics of the players on the pitch changed a little bit too. We had amazing players, but characteristically different.
“We started to adapt and half-time was crucial. Cristiano and Fernando Santos both spoke to us in the dressing room and they gave us great words. That was key and the second half was a completely different game. We started to believe more and more and we started to create much more.”
The final has arguably become more memorable for Ronaldo’s absence, and his coaching from the touchline in extra-time, than the late winning goal from Eder.
But the all-encompassing presence of the world’s most famous sportsman is something that all of the Portugal national team have got used to over the years, and Cedric confirms that there is no doubt his aura brings an extra layer of scrutiny to the side.
“Yes, 100 per cent. Everywhere we go there are people sleeping in the doorways of our hotels, just to see Cristiano walk past for 10 seconds maybe. It’s crazy how big he is as a player and how much importance he has in people lives. But I am proud to be able to play next to a player like him. He loves playing for Portugal, he has a big responsibility so to win something for Portugal next to him was definitely something special in my career.”
But can that level of intensity on just one person also prove to be a distraction for other players of the squad?
“I understand what you mean,” he replies, “but also Cristiano knows the team is very important. He’s always concerned about the team. We do our job there to help him. We know if we play well, he will definitely do his job and we will end up winning. He has been the best player in the world so many times, so we need to support and help and do everything to keep going.
“He’s used to the attention round him now of course. Sometimes he asks us to help him. Maybe if we all go together to sign autographs, there won’t be so many people asking for him, as if he went by himself for example. Obviously the people want him mainly, but we can help him too.”
That’s something that’s also shifted slightly since that summer of 2016 when Portugal became European champions. This squad of players is no longer in the shadow of Ronaldo, they have all gone down in history in their own right as the first group to win the Euros for their nation. So how soon did that realisation start to sink in after the final whistle in Paris?
“We didn’t understand what it meant at first,” says Cedric, who vividly remembers watching as a 12-year-old fan when Portugal lost to Greece on home turf in the final of Euro 2004.
“In France there is a very big community of Portuguese, so it was huge for us already, but we didn’t understand the dimension of it in Portugal until we got back home. We went back to Lisbon the next day and nobody was working. Every road was packed – everywhere you went you couldn’t see the concrete on the floor because there were people everywhere. We enjoyed it, on the bus parade, and honestly you are still so excited you don’t feel any tiredness. But the day after that, the emotions go down and you feel tired. But that day is about adrenaline. I had people calling me on the bus, my friends saying “we are here! We can see you!” It was a really, really nice sensation. But football passes so quickly. Nobody will ever forget that moment, but it was over so quickly – we’ve already had another Euros since then!”
And since then Cedric’s career has taken him from Southampton to Arsenal, joining us –initially on loan – in January 2020.
He says the experience he gained during Euro 2016 especially has helped him deal with the hottest atmospheres the Premier League has to offer, and he now thrives off the pressure from a full stadium.
“When you are young that’s harder of course, and I’ve had my difficult moments too,” he explains. “Even in the Euros we conceded a goal when the ball went over me from a cross. It was against Poland, but we caught them and drew the game, then won on penalties. So that was a big pressure and I was young, only 24 at the time. The important thing is the reaction. That’s where family comes in, your support comes in and where your mentality and mental health comes in. You need to be able to press the reset and start again.
“Everyone thinks about making mistakes, of course, but that’s life,” Cedric, now 30, adds.
“We have a saying in Portuguese which basically says only the people involved on the inside can make the mistakes. So that means you have to be there in the first place, you have to be inside, which means you can enjoy it, because you have earned being in that position, but you can also be the one who makes a mistake. If you are only watching, there is nothing you can do. If you are there and you make a mistake, it’s just human, you need to lift yourself and believe you can turn it around. That’s how I think. I’m not afraid of making mistakes.”
He continues: “Communication is important in football and yes when the stadium is full it can be hard. Sometimes you can’t hear anything. In the Premier League it depends on the stadium, but sometimes your teammates can’t hear you. The final of the Euros though was something else. It was very, very noisy, a fantastic atmosphere, but for me it excites you more, it lifts you more.
“It gives you more responsibility, but I like to feel the pressure of a game. It makes me feel alive. More than normal.”
It’s for that reason that Cedric wasn’t a fan of behind closed doors football. This season he’s been making up for lost time playing in front of the Arsenal fans, as each of his first 29 games for the club (including a goalscoring debut) came in near-empty stadiums.
“That period really made me realise that the fans are a big, big factor in football,” he says. “Football without fans is not really football. They have a big influence in the game and things are different when we have the fans behind us.
“Speaking for myself I love that pressure. I love to feel that I cannot afford to miss, but also knowing if I do something good they are there to support me. It’s a fantastic feeling. It’s very important to have the fans back.
“The lockdown games were super strange, like a training session, we could hear everything, every voice. The coach, the players, the opposition. You need that adrenaline and atmosphere from the fans that makes the game even more real. It’s hard to explain, it’s just something you feel.
“What makes the game special is a full stadium. We missed the fans a lot last year, but I also feel the fans missed being there too. Football is a big part of their life, a habit of going every weekend, then suddenly that stopped. Taking their grandchildren to a game, teaching their kids about it. It all stopped,” adds Cedric, who grew up as a devoted Sporting Lisbon fan after moving to Portugal from Germany aged just two.
And now Cedric believes that these fans are owed something back. The bond between players and supporters has certainly strengthened this year, after the best part of a year apart, and our Portuguese full back is feeling that love every time he steps out at Emirates Stadium.
“Arsenal has a big responsibility as a club,” he says. “We know we need to give the fans a much better season than we gave them last season.
“Lately in our home games I’ve really felt the stadium is completely behind us. The comeback win against Wolves in February was like that.
“We were 1-0 down but the fans understood that we were pushing, and trying, and really going for it. I heard the whole stadium behind us.
“When you are on the pitch, of course most of the time you are focused on the game. But during that game, maybe when the action stopped for a bit, I could really feel that the crowd was completely behind us. It was massive. I believed we could turn it around, and in the end we made it happen together.
“We fought so hard to win the game. We applied our principles and in the end, with a lot of emotion, we exploded with a 2-1 win. Then after that, you need to celebrate your wins – especially when they are important.”
Cedric knows all about important wins, and by the time this season is out, he’s hopeful of adding one or two more to the memory bank.
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