In international football, there is perhaps no better tournament for throwing up shocks than the European Championship. Played since 1960, the continental competition has had 15 different editions. In that time, Denmark and Czechoslovakia have lifted the trophy, while Sweden, Wales, Russia and Turkey have all enjoyed memorable runs to the semi-finals. But one team’s upset rocked the world above all others.
Euro 2004 was held in Portugal. The holders were France who had won in Belgium and the Netherlands to follow up their World Cup win in ’98. France were among the favourites again, as were Germany, Italy, Spain and England – as well as the hosts, Portugal. Needless to say, Greece were not expected to compete at the same level. But, it transpired, Euro 2004 would be a tournament for the underdogs.
Greece’s squad was made up mainly of talent from their Super League teams, AEK Athens, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. They did, however, have a number of players from other leagues around Europe.
Perhaps the crown jewel in the side, Giorgos Karagounis represented Inter Milan at the time, playing as a midfielder. He would later join Benfica and Fulham before hanging up his boots in 2014. In total, he played 139 times for Greece, making him the most capped player in the nation’s football history.
Second on that list is Theodoros Zagorakis. He won 120 caps and was also one of Greece’s leading lights at Euro 2004. He played for Leicester between 1998 and 2000 and would move to Bologna in Serie A once the tournament was finished.
Kostas Katsouranis represented Greece 116 times, making him number three in the all-time list. He was in his prime at Euro 2004, a mainstay of AEK Athens who would later play in the Champions League for Benfica.
Greece’s top scorer at Euro 2004 was Angelos Charisteas who finished with three goals. The striker was playing for Werder Bremen at the time and would turn out for Ajax, Feyenoord, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke later in his career.
Greece’s goalkeeper was Antonis Nikopolidis. He earned 90 caps in his international career, representing Greece for nearly a decade between 1999 and 2008.
Stelios Giannakopolous might be familiar to a British audience from his time playing for the excellent Bolton Wanderers side of the mid-2000s. The attacking-midfielder would also briefly represent Hull City.
The manager was Otto Rehhagel. The German was arguably the most recognisable face in the Greek set up as he had managed a bevvy of high-profile teams in his homeland: Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, FC Kaiserslautern and Hertha Berlin.
The Greek side at Euro 2004 was not a collection of superstars, but they were greater than the sum of their parts. They became famous for their defensive rigidity and collective strength of character. Their success story in Portugal is a monument to the merits of what can be achieved with genuine team spirit and a will to triumph.
Greece qualified for Euro 2004 impressively, winning six of their eight games in Group 6 and finishing in 1st place ahead of Spain, Ukraine, Armenia and Northern Ireland. But despite their good showing prior to the tournament itself, when they saw the draw, they probably feared the worst.
They were drawn against the hosts, Portugal, meaning that they would take part in the opening fixture of Euro 2004 on June 12. They were also reunited with Spain, who they had both won and lost against during the qualifying stage. The fourth spot in Group A belonged to Russia – ostensibly the weakest team, other than Greece, in the group but the only one who would manage a victory against Rehhagel’s side at Euro 2004.
Portugal 1-2 Greece, 12/06/04, Estádio do Dragão
Greece’s first test was daunting, but one they passed with flying colours. They couldn’t have known it at the time, but it would also be the first of two times they would face Portugal, the latter in the final. It was also the first international match held at the impressive new Estádio do Dragão, a factor which added to the gravity of the occasion.
Things couldn’t have started worse for the hosts, however. They went 1-0 down to a 20-yard Karagounis strike which arrowed in low at Ricardo’s right post. Portugal had a team chock full of superstars – there was Rui Costa, Luis Figo, Nuno Gomes, Deco and a young Cristiano Ronaldo – but nerves seemed to be getting the better of them. Greece held their shape and the lead.
Six minutes into the second half, referee Pierluigi Collina awarded Greece a penalty after Ronaldo bungled right-back Giourkas Seitaridis over inside the area. Up stepped Basinas. He fired into the top right and Greece had a two-goal advantage. For the rest of the match, Portugal barraged the Greek goal, but to little avail. Ronaldo atoned for his error when he nodded in a consolation, but it made no difference to the result.
Greece 1-1 Spain, 16/06/04, Estádio do Bessa
Greece faced another Iberian challenge in their second fixture. Spain were not the generational team they would be from 2008 to 2012, but they were a strong opposition nonetheless. Greece had the task of keeping Raul and Fernando Morientes quiet while trying to attack the defence of Puyol, Marchena and Helguera. Once they did that, they had to find a way past the mighty Iker Casillas.
The Greek’s resistance was broken when, with the clock on 28 minutes, Raul’s delicious backheel found the feet of Morientes who took the ball past one Greek defender, opened up the space for the shot then lashed beyond Nikopolidis. They looked threatening throughout the remainder of a first half that ended 1-0 to Spain.
Greece found an equaliser with 25 minutes left to play, however. A long diagonal was touched down by Charisteas inside the area and he fired underneath Casillas to make it 1-1. Spain pushed for a winner in the closing stages, with Greece looking for opportunities on the counter. The score stayed at 1-1.
It was another superb result for Otto Rehhagel’s men. They sat on four points and knew that, with Spain and Portugal still to play each other, they had as good as qualified for the knockouts.
Russia 2-1 Greece, 20/06/04, Estádio Algarve
Greece’s only loss at Euro 2004 came in their only inconsequential game. With their minds already on the quarter-finals, they were 2-0 down inside 20 minutes. Kirichenko slipped through a poorly arranged defence to make it 1-0 two minutes into the final game of Group A. Fifteen minutes later Bulykin’s magnificent diving header from a corner made it 2-0.
Vryzas got one back for Greece on the stroke of half time. Taking the ball on his knee before dinking over the keeper, it was a lovely goal. That was the last of the goals and the game finished 2-1.
Greece qualified as runners-up after Spain slumped to defeat against Portugal.
France 0-1 Greece, 25/06/04, Estádio José Alvalade
Greece were drawn against France in their first-ever knockout game at a major tournament. No one expected them to do anything other than roll over to the might of Henry, Zidane and Vieira. In the end, they did anything but…
France had enjoyed a strong start to the tournament, beating England with two Zidane goals in injury time. They could only manage a draw with Croatia but finished in style with a 3-1 win over Switzerland. The game against Greece was meant to be a formality.
But Greece ran out 1-0 winners thanks to a mighty Charisteas header with 25 minutes left to play. This wasn’t a smash-and-grab, though. France and Greece shared the chances in the game and, although Greece were conservative in their approach, they were fully deserving of their place in the semi-finals.
Greece 1-0 Czech Republic (a.e.t), 01/07/04, Estádio do Dragão
In their penultimate fixture, Greece were drawn against fellow over-achievers. The Czech Republic had pedigree in the competition. They were beaten finalists in 1996, finished in third place in 1980 and were champions in 1976. At Euro 2004, they had been excellent, topping their group – the “group of death” – which contained Latvia, the Netherlands and Germany. They won all three of their games, meaning that, at this stage, they were the only side at Euro 2004 with a 100% record. In the quarter-final, they had demolished Denmark 3-0.
To secure passage to the final in Lisbon, Greece faced the unenviable task of keeping Milan Baros quiet. The Liverpool striker was in his pomp and would be the top-scorer at Euro 2004 with five goals. But, thankfully for Greece, none of them came in the semi-final. In arguably the drabbest affair of the tournament, the Greek defence managed to keep the Czechs quiet. In added time at the end of the first period of extra-time, Traianos Dellas stole in at the near post to score the only goal of the game, a header from a corner.
It was already a fairy tale. Greece were in the final of Euro 2004.
Portugal 0-1 Greece, 04/07/04, Estádio da Luz
Greece were underdogs at the start of the tournament, and they were in the final too. They did have a psychological advantage in that they had already beaten their opponents in the group stage. Since then, Portugal had squeezed past England on penalties and the Netherlands in the semi-finals. Taking into account their victory over Spain in the group stages, they had the best record in the tournament in terms of the teams they had beaten. They also had the huge boost that a home crowd afforded them.
If they were to claim the ultimate victory in Lisbon, Greece would have to turn the match into a battle. And that they did. They went toe-to-toe with Portugal all over the pitch, putting out fires wherever they saw them and starting a few themselves.
When it came, the winning goal was remarkably similar to the one that got them to the semi-final against the Czech Republic, although this time it was Charisteas and not Dellas. A corner, a header, a goal – the most famous goal in the history of Greek football. With some difficulty, Greece navigated the final 30 minutes and held on to become champions of Europe; truly, one of football’s greatest stories.