FootballInternational Football

Ryan Baldi: The Greek Gods of Euro 2004

June 2, 2021January 7th, 2022

HEADING to Portugal in the summer of 2004, Greece, who had qualified for the European Championships for the first time since 1980, held a very humble ambition.

"The target at the start was to win a game," midfielder Vasilis Tsiartas later told ESPN. "Just one game. It was something none of the national teams had been able to do [at a major finals]. Even the side who had gone to the World Cup in 1994 had not managed to beat anyone. That would have counted as a success: winning just once."

On reflection, while no one could have anticipated what they would go on to achieve, Greece could have afforded to stretch their aims higher than a single win.

Experienced German tactician Otto Rehhagel had been appointed Greece manager in 2001, boasting a CV that included spells in charge of Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and an against-the-odds Bundesliga title with Kaiserslautern. In just his second game at the helm, he demonstrated his ability to frustrate more talented opposition by overseeing a 2-2 World Cup-qualifying draw with England at Old Trafford, in which David Beckham’s last-gasp free kick prevented the away side securing a memorable victory.

And Greece booked their place at Euro 2004 thanks to an impressive 15-game unbeaten streak through a qualification campaign that included an away win over Spain, who they’d meet again in the tournament’s group stage.

One win at the finals, then? Greece had to fancy their chances.

Maybe not in the tournament’s opening game, though, which pitted them against the host nation. Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, Deco and a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo, surely, would have too much creativity and firepower for even Greece’s supreme defensive organisation to withstand.

Yet Rehhagel’s defence-heavy approach shackled the talent-rich opposition, limiting Portugal’s clear sights at goal while an early Georgios Karagounis goal and a second-half penalty from Angelos Basinas gave Greece what quickly began to look like an unassailable lead. Ronaldo’s injury-time header – his first international goal in a haul up to 103 at latest count – was scant consolation for the upset home team.

Greece then drew with Spain in their second game. A win over Russia, the group’s winless bottom side, would clinch progress to the knockout stages. This time they fell short of expectations, beaten 2-1, but they were bailed out by Nuno Gomes, who scored the only goal as Portugal beat Spain, handing Greece second spot and a place in the quarter-finals …

… where France, the reigning European champions, awaited.

France had been embarrassed at the 2002 World Cup, the defence of their crown ending with a group-stage exit, but they were still a side rich with talent – Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Zinedine Zidane would all start the quarter-final – and they’d just topped England’s group.

Had the Greek fairytale ended here, they could feel more than content with their summer’s work. After all, thanks to a shock victory over the hosts and progress to the knockout rounds, Rehhagel’s men were already putting way under par.

Against France, Giourkas Seitaridis was designated to man-mark Henry, Europe’s finest striker fresh off leading Arsenal to an unbeaten Premier League title triumph. Every other Greek player was drilled in their defensive assignment, the rigid out-of-possession structure and suffocating denial of space in the territory they were to protect.

The style of football was far from entertaining – neutral hearts were won by the strength of the Greek underdog story rather than any kind of adventure in their play. But Rehhagel’s defensive strategy stymied France. Towering target man Angelos Charisteas scored the game’s only goal.

By this stage the Greeks began to believe in their own mythology. They entered their semi-final against the Czech Republic confident that their tactics – already proven successful, in all fairness, against stronger opposition – could see them through. And again their stifling set-up won out, this time thanks to the only “silver goal” – the short-lived rule allowing a team who conceded in the first half of extra time until the break to respond – in football history, scored by centre-back Traianos Dellas.

That victory set up a rematch with Portugal in the final. The home nation had overcome Holland in their semi thanks to a first-half Ronaldo goal and a stunning winner arrowed in from the corner of the penalty area by midfielder Maniche.

It was a match of competing narratives – could the hometown heroes avenge their earlier defeat and make a Greek tragedy of the unlikeliest major-tournament run in recent memory?

They could not. A third straight 1-0, with Charisteas heading home the decisive goal in the second half, completed an underdog story to trump Denmark’s 1992 triumph and a home-nation upset comparable with Uruguay shocking Brazil on their own turf to lift the World Cup in 1950.

"Ancient Greece had 12 gods," read the side of the Greek team bus. "Modern Greece has 11."