Euro 2004: How the Greeks conquered Lisbon
17 years ago, Euro 2004 told a fantastic underdog story of a Greece team who defied all odds to become champions of Europe. Calum Muldoon takes a look back at the Greek heroics in Portugal that etched Otto Rehhagel’s side into European history.
The Greek National football team was in a dark period in the early 2000s. The nation had lost hope of any success on the international stage and only dreamt of qualifying for a major tournament again. The two times they succeeded in qualifying were an utter disaster; they had never scored a goal, let alone won a game, at a major tournament. However, the Greek Football Association were ready to change the fate of the Greek National Team and decided to bring in 3x Bundesliga winning manager Otto Rehhagel in 2001. The German was a renowned tactician who strongly believed that defenders win games and would insist on having his backline be tall and strong in order to physically crush an opponents’ offence.
His appointment seemed to be the right call as the Greeks went 15 matches unbeaten in the Euro 2004 qualifiers and even beat Spain, who they would go on to face in the group stages of the tournament proper. While Greece proved themselves to be a good defensive team across the qualifiers, the side was plagued with issues behind the scenes. With their record at the Euros and their issues off the pitch, spectators from across Europe had more or less written Greece off before they even arrived at their training camp in the town of Vila do Conde in Portugal.
To understand what could possibly hamper Greece’s success, you have to understand the Big Four in the Greek Super League. The Big Four consists of Olympiakos, AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and PAOK. These four teams combined have won a staggering 80 league titles out of 84 available and have been bitter rivals since the Greek Super League began. Fights in the stands and in the streets between fans was not uncommon and it was not a surprise to see the players feeling animosity towards each other in matches too. Now imagine them having to play with each other for the summer. It’s like if the Scottish national team was purely made up of players from Celtic and Rangers – pure chaos. However, before and during the tournament, Rehhagel drilled the importance of unity and team spirit into his players’ heads and convinced them to discard club rivalries and show the world just how good a united Greece could be.
While qualification came relatively easily, these disputes started to raise questions as to whether the team would be able to live up to the pressures that a major tournament can bring. Those questions were intensified and made more frequent when it was revealed that two of Greece’s goalkeepers were not even on speaking terms with each other. Before a ball had even been kicked, Greece had seemingly been written off completely, especially with the nation’s odds of winning the tournament at 150/1. This was mostly down to their unfortunate draw into this tournament’s “group of death,” which included the tournament’s hosts Portugal, who featured a blossoming 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, a young and exciting Spain and former European champions Russia. With the odds stacked against them massively, Greece shocked the entire world.
The Greeks proved their critics wrong and within seven minutes in the opening match against Portugal, Georgios Karagounis became the country’s first ever goal scorer at a major tournament with a long-ranged shot into the bottom left corner of the net. Rehhagel saw his side’s fortunes continue, when a rash challenge from Ronaldo led to a spot kick which was neatly put away by Angelos Basinas. The Greek backline were the real heroes of the match and although they conceded a goal in stoppage time, they would hold on to win their first match at a major tournament in their history and they were certainly not intending on stopping there.
Next up for Greece would be Spain, who were coming off the back of a victory over Russia, with both sides looking to cement their place at the top of the group. However, the match would end up fairly inconsequential, with a hard fought contest ending in a 1-1 draw, with the two sides tied at the top on four points. Greece’s hopes of making the knockout stage rested on their match against a disappointing Russian side who had failed to record a win against either Portugal or Spain thus far. However, Greek hearts sank as Russia scored two goals in the first 20 minutes and although Greece managed to score a consolation goal before halftime to keep the deficit at a minimum, a second goal escaped them as they went on to lose the match. Thankfully, Portugal stole a narrow win against Spain, which allowed Greece to progress on goals scored, having had the exact same points total and goal difference as Spain.
The players knew they would have to play like their lives depended on it going forward. They were now due to play against tournament favourites and reigning champions France, who boasted ferocious striking talent like Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Robert Peres, so Otto Rehhegal knew that he would need to tighten his defensive strategies to hold down any French bombardment. Even still, it would be a tall order for Greece to get a result, but once again, they surprised spectators and dealt with France very well. The reigning champions were sloppy and reckless on the ball, failing to create meaningful chances and Greece capitalised on that to create a good flow of the ball, which lead to the only goal of the match, coming in the 65th minute when a lovely cross by captain Theodoros Zagorakis would allow Angelos Christeas to header it past a helpless Fabien Barthez to send the Greek side to the semi-finals against the Czech Republic.
This Czech side were looking strong in the lead up, single handily eliminating Germany from the group stage in the final game and it took a show stopping performance from Greece’s goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis to take the game to extra time, where Traianos Dellas’ goal in the dying seconds of the first half would send Rehhegal’s side through to play in the biggest game of their lives: the final against Portugal.
Only days before the game, Rehhegal had gathered his men for a meeting. He wanted to highlight the importance of this historic match and what he and his team could be about to achieve. It became clear to the players that they were no longer Olympiakos or AEK Athens players – they were Greece players. They had learned to set aside their club rivalries in the name of bringing the Euros trophy back to Athens. They were ready.
From the get-go, Greece frustrated the Portuguese offence. Chances from Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo were either shut down by a backline led by an inspired Traianos Dellas or stopped by Nikopolidis. After a tense first half, Greece went on the counter and received a corner in the 57th minute. Basinas whipped the ball into the box and Christeas beat his man to thump it home with a header and nearly 4000 kilometres away, a nation roared. Fans celebrated the goal in style but knew they would have to wait another 30 minutes before the real celebrations began. Portugal continued to press, yet the Greek defenders stood tall and prevented a possible equaliser. After an agonising five minutes of injury time the referee blew the final whistle and Greek players collapsed to the ground in tears of joy.
Hundreds of thousands of people travelled to catch a glimpse of the heroes who crushed the Portuguese dream when they returned back to their homeland. Side by side, fans of the big four celebrated together and for one day forgot about the clubs that divided them and stood as one united fan base of the Greek national team.
When you look back on Euro 2004, you must admit Greece did not play the game of football the way fans like to see. Viewers want to watch the fast-flowing football that was on display from a side like Portugal or Spain. However, Greece showed the world that good defending can have an impact on a match result. They did not concede a goal in the knockout stage and they faced off against three of the best teams in the tournament which is a remarkable feat. While their style of play will not be remembered for generations to come, those 11 players on that pitch will be. To quote from the side of the team’s bus during their victory parade: “Ancient Greece had 12 gods, Modern Greece has 11.”