Rarely has a country devoted to deep thinking and philosophical reflection been left speechless. Yet even the likes of Socrates and Plato wouldn’t have been able to conjure up a theory for the madness on display at Euro 2004.
As the final whistle blew in the evening sky of Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz stadium, the only thing to cut through the disbelief back in Athen’s was the wild scenes of euphoric celebration. Greece, a country of complete footballing insignificance for almost 100 years had just won the European Champions.
With a manager in his first-ever international job at the helm and a squad devoid of any talismanic superstar to rest their hopes on, Greece’s triumph in Portugal was the epitome of an underdog story. With little success to look towards post-Euro 2004, Otto Rehhagel’s side remains the pinnacle of footballing success in Greece, as well as a case study on the power of a collective unit to overcome individual brilliance.
Greece were not just unfancied on the international scene, but downright dreadful up to the point when Otto Rehhagel took charge. In the 25 international tournaments that Greece attempted to reach between 1934 and 2002, the Ethniki managed to qualify on just two occasions, both tournaments ending without a win or goal for the national side.
With massive tensions between the three leading clubs, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens, assembling a functioning national squad was an impossible task for the manager in the job, and as yet another World Cup qualification looking to be heading for ruin, in the summer of 2001 the Greek FA decided something had to change.
In came German Manager Otto Rehhagel, who had most recently guided Kaiserslautern to a Bundesliga title in the season directly following their promotion from the second division. A hard-nosed defender who never shied away from a tackle, Rehhagel brought these same values into his jobs in management. Building his sides around aerially dominant centre backs, Rehhagel was notorious for his organization and the united front his teams displayed.
Three years on from his appointment and Rehhagel had qualified the national side for The Euros. Rehhagel had already earned the respect of thousands of Greek football fans, eager to trade another discreet summer holiday for the festivities of an international tournament. Going undefeated through the entire calendar year in 2003, Greece journeyed to the Finals in Portugal with a determination to achieve more than a lifeless group-stage exit that had been the story of the nation’s previous two tournament appearances.
Between a historical success and a third failure lay a group-stage opener with Portugal, tournament hosts and one of the favourites to lift the title in 22 days time. In attack, Luiz Felipe Scolari had an abundance of talent, able to call on the ageing stars of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Pauleta, as well as the next generation’s torch-bearer, 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
To add to this array of attacking talent, the core of the Porto squad that had improbably lifted the Champions League just weeks prior was available, with the midfield trio of Costinha, Maniche, and Deco amongst the best in the world that season. With no host failing to win their opening fixture since the group stages were established in 1980, it seemed like even Rehagel’s stoic Greek defence were set to be hopelessly outgunned when the sides lined up at the Estádio do Dragão.
Though Greece’s feats that summer are largely remembered for defensive solidity, it was they who came out the brighter of the two sides, with Georgios Karagounis capitalizing on a calamitous first touch from Paulo Ferreira to fire the Ethniki in front.
Karagounis leapt into his countryman’s awaiting arms, celebrating with the travelling Greek fans who for once had shed away their divisive club allegiances. Feeling the weight of a disastrous international record lifted from the nation’s consciousness, all that was left now was for the Greek’s to pick up their nation’s first tournament victory.
A second-half penalty from a clumsy tackle by the half time substitute Cristiano Ronaldo allowed Greece to go two to the good, bunkering in with the sensible approach that would become the scorn of neutrals hoping for a tournament of attacking flair and end to end football. With Scolari’s side sending long-range pop shots that never looked like challenging Antonis Nikopolidis in the Greek net, the Greece defence stood firm. A powerful header from Ronaldo in stoppage time would ultimately bring nothing, perhaps redeeming his own blushes earlier in the half, but not fabricating any comeback for the home side.
As a choir of whistles and groans greeted the full-time whistle, Greece had accomplished what few could have even imagined in their wildest dreams, not just winning in an international tournament, but completely nullifying one of the greatest collections of attacking talent in world football that year.
Greece were a side rejuvenated, unburdened by their desolate finals record that had now been broken. Having beaten the hosts’ talent-packed outfit on the first matchday, Greece could have secured qualification with victory over Spain, beating the two giants of the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of 4 days. However, a draw would have to suffice, after Fernando Moreintes’ 29th-minute strike was cancelled out by Angelos Charisteas’ volley in the second half. With Portugal seeing off Russia in the parallel fixture in Group A, all was to play for heading into the final match.
Few would have tipped Greece to even have a possibility for qualification by the third group stage match, let alone sit in first place. With just a depleted Russia side standing in the way of a trip to the quarterfinals, even the bleakest of the Ethniki fans would have fancied the side’s chances of progression.
However, within 68 seconds the old face of the national side crept up again, falling behind to a calamitous defensive error. 15 minutes in and their nightmare start turned into full-on capitulation, with the Greek defence once more completely opening up to allow Dmitri Bulykin a free header from Rolan Gusev’s corner kick.
A Zissis Vryzas strike drew one back shortly before halftime, but as the minutes ticked down to the final whistle, eyes began to wander to the match between Portugal and Spain. Nuno Gomes had put the hosts ahead in the 57th minute, however, the 1-0 scoreline held everything in Group A tightly in the balance, with both Spain and Greece level on 4 points and a 0 goal differential.
If results held then Rehhagel’s side would advance, with the Greek’s 4 goals in the tournament 2 better than the Spaniard’s, however, a goal for Russia or Spain would completely change the outlook, sending Greece packing in the process. Somehow, despite even more pressure from the Russian side, results remained the same. With their tails between their legs, Greece ventured to the quarter-finals, aware that another slip up would no longer be afforded such a fortunate escape route.
Back home in Greece morale was at an unprecedented high, with the divided fanbase united under the blue & white flag of the nation. Between Greece and another miracle lay France, reigning European champions and heavyweights of world football.
Despite boasting a considerably older squad then the one which had triumphed over Italy 4 years earlier, Les Blues were still candidates to take home the title, retaining a talent-packed lineup synonymous with the Gallic rooster on their badge. As the French ensemble lined up, the whole world patiently waited to see Jacques Santini’s side dismantle the Greeks, every neutral fan preparing for another 90 minutes of elegance from Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane had endured a difficult season at Madrid, failing to win a title for the first time since joining Los Blancos. At 31 years old, the Frenchman was nearing the end of his illustrious career, and despite being the reigning European player of the year, it was clear to see his powers dwindling. Having won everything imaginable for both club & country few had expected Zizou to go into Portugal with the same appetite for the victory he had in the ’98 World Cup on home soil.
Yet three games in Zidane was back to his best, leading the tournament in goals scored and dazzling supporters with his performances. Once more the figurehead in a side boasting the mercurial talents of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and Robert Pires, Zidane had his sights set on another international triumph, by no means ready to allow a lowly Greek national team to stand in his way.
As Swedish referee Anders Frisk whistled to open the quarter-final, Rehhagel’s game plan became clear, agitating the bald-headed maestro with constant niggling fouls and pressure. Not allowing Zidane to dictate the game as he had done in the previous 3 fixtures, France’s attacks stalled, often looking for pop shots from outside the box or individual moments of brilliance. Even when the French could muster a moment of brilliance Greece found a way to get a body in front, always with a defender back to put in a last-ditch tackle, or crucial headed clearance.
A delightful clipped ball to the head of Angelos Charisteas gave the Ethniki a shock lead at the hour mark, and Greece held on with the typical resolute defending which had become a cornerstone of Rehhagel’s reinvention of the side.
The final whistle was greeted with a roar from the travelling support, growing in number and enthusiasm each match as their countryman continued to shock European football. Whilst the ensemble of French talent dispersed down the tunnel with a mixture of fury and embarrassment, the Greeks celebrated with triumphant jubilee, for the first time beginning to dream of lifting international silverware.
Next up was a meeting with the Czech Republic, a semi-final opponent that in 2021 would be greeted with a roar of approval, yet in 2004 was amongst the finest sides in the world. Boasting reigning Ballon D’or winner Pavel Nedvěd, the 6’6 aerial menace Jan Koller upfront, and young talents like Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, and Milan Baros, the Nároďák of 2004 were looking to go one step further than in 1996 when they lost in the final to West Germany.
Unlike the French who found it hard to carve out opportunities, the Czech’s played with the same attacking fervour that saw them top a group consisting of Germany and Holland, showering the Greek goal with chance after chance. Greece could never get a grip on Koller up top, winning aerial duels and bullying a defence that had looked so solid for 3 of the 4 games they had contested. After Rosicky smashed a Koller knockdown onto the bar three minutes in, the giant forward got his own close call later in the half, putting a looping header over Nikopolidis only for the woodwork to again come to the rescue. As the sides went into halftime, the only comforting prospect for The Ethniki was the enforced substitution of Pavel Nedved, The Czech captain who had gone down injured under an innocuous challenge 4 minutes before the break.
Just as in the France match, the opponent’s key star had been nullified, yet this time Greece’s opponents seemed barely fazed, with the Czechs continuing where they had left off in the first 45. A couple of fine saves by Nikopolidis and a shocking 80th-minute miss from Jan Koller kept the sides at 0:0, forcing extra time and another 30 minutes of agony.
Greece were lucky. REALLY LUCKY. Unlike in the Russia game where they had been beaten by their own mistakes and foolishness, in the semi-final 11 days later Greece were outplayed, unable to cope with Koller’s physical dominance or Rosicky’s technical grace. Despite beating the likes of Portugal and France, all the signs seemed to point towards this miraculous journey coming to an end in the same stadium where it began 19 days earlier.
Thirty minutes is a long time in football though, particularly after playing 360 minutes in the summer heat over the past 20 days. With both sets of players beginning to feel their legs and minds tire, gaps began opening up, both sides defensive units becoming more error-prone. Having been unable to create any clear cut opportunities throughout regular time, The Ethniki graciously accepted the gifts, beginning to draw a foothold back in the match. A 105th-minute corner allowed the big centre backs to venture forward, and Traianos Dellas headed his country into euphoria.
The veteran who played just 20 games across three years at AS Rome had just become a national hero, with the schoolboy nature in which he had handled Koller now completely forgotten. Once more the Greek fans greeted the final whistle with unmatched enthusiasm, sending red flares into the night sky as the whole country celebrated. The second 1:0 victory in a matter of 4 days, The Ethniki were into the European Final, with a familiar face waiting at the final stage.
Since their opening group stage defeat at the hands of Greece, Portugal had rebounded in stylish fashion, winning their next 4 matches en route to the final. In front of their home fans, with an impeccable Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, and Figo making up the creative hub of the side, no one could imagine a repeat of the opening fixture.
Yet the final immediately took on a similar course as the affair 22 days earlier, with Greece’s bunkered defence forcing the Portuguese into speculative long-range efforts. Without an aerial threat like Jan Koller, the Greek defence looked assured once more, throwing themselves in front of shots, eliminating gaps for Deco or Figo to expose, and keeping a deep line to reduce the impact of Ronaldo’s searing pace.
By halftime the game had transpired as a drab affair, consisting of a midfield battle with constant turnovers and no spells of lengthy possession. Either a set piece for Greece or individual brilliance from one of Portugal’s stars was what it would take to change this game, and in the 57th minute that is precisely what happened.
Angelos Basinas stood patiently, waiting for the defenders to pour forward. For other sides corner kicks were a rather pointless affair culminating in a hopeless ball into the box. For the Greeks, it was the main source of a goal threat. Looping a swinging ball between the penalty spot and Ricardo’s goal, Angelos Charisteas leapt into the air, grabbing an inch on his marker Costinha and firing his nation in front. In 7 seasons in the German Bundesliga Charisteas’ had scored just 4 headed goals, yet in the summer of 2004, Charisteas’ head was perhaps the deadliest weapon in world football, viciously powering the ball into the net against both France and Portugal to turn dreams into reality.
Despite a continuous bombardment from the Portuguese, Greece held out, going from heroes to gods when the final whistle sounded. Whereas in previous rounds Greece had celebrated jubilantly at full time, the immediate reaction was a sense of disbelief, incapable of coming to terms with what they had just achieved.
Though the tears of a teenage Ronaldo are what is most memorable from that final, the full-time reaction of Antonis Nikopolidis is no less emotional. The first choice goalkeeper since 1999 for The Ethniki, Nikopolidis had been part of all the defeat and misery, the failed qualifications and countless embarrassments. Now here he was, 33 years of age and a European Champion, becoming a national icon as he held down a defence that didn’t concede a goal across 300 minutes of knockout football against the best of European football.
In Greece’s European victory there was no exciting attacking football to grip audiences, no mesmerizing wingers whose trickery inspired kids to go out in the street and try to replicate what they saw on the television. Instead, Greece thrived off their lack of an attacking superstar, developing a sense of unity, and a collective desire to withstand 90 minutes of attacking bombardment.
With three consecutive 1-0 victories, two of which came from a corner kick, Greece didn’t show the world beautiful football, instead, they offered an antithesis, a way to compete at the highest level when one isn’t spoiled for attacking riches and elite stars.
Whilst a 19-year old Ronaldo or a 23-year-old Tomas Rosicky gripped fans to the edge of their seats throughout those 3 weeks, it is only Greece’s improbable road to victory that remains in our collective memory almost 17 years later.