It was one of the greatest Underdog achievements in International football. It was the greatest moment for the Greece National Football Team. Greece, a country that struggled in International football for over 20 years were crowned the champions of Europe. However, this was not the usual underdog story, where the dark horses excited and charmed millions. It was quite the opposite.
Otto Rehhagel’s team had almost made it the 2002 World Cup, only to be denied by that famous David Beckham free kick in the dying moments of their last qualifier. It was ironic that Greece actually outplayed England in that match, given that when they did make it to their next big tournament, they went through it playing a dull and dour game making them very hard to enjoy watching. In the words of The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning, they were “the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten.” But Otto Rehhagel and Greece could not care less as their disciplined performances saw them record a historic triumph.
Heading into the tournament, Germany, Spain and Italy were the favourites. France who were the defending champions had a strong side, as did England and Netherlands. Czech Republic too played some of the finest football you would see. Greece on the other hand was at the lower end of the teams that made the Championship. Among all the teams that made the tournament, Greece’s UEFA Country Coefficient at that time was better than just Latvia.
Prior to their appearance at the 2004 European Championship, Greece had qualified for only 2 major tournaments. The 1994 FIFA World Cup and 1980 European Championships. In those 6 games they played, Greece drew once and lost 5.
Greece were drawn into Group A, which consisted of hosts Portugal, Spain and Russia. The two Iberian teams were favourites to exit the group stage. The squad sent by the Greeks were on the older side, with 11 of their 23 players being above the age of 30 or more.
The first match would shock the world, with Greece running 2-1 winners over Portugal. Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas scored the goals for the Greeks, with Cristiano Ronaldo (then 19 years old) netting a sole consolation. In a match against one of the favourites, Spain, Angelos Charisteas scored the first of his 3 goals in the tournament. This cancelled out an early Fernando Morientes goal. In their final game, Zisis Vryzas scored a lone second half goal for the Greeks, as they were defeated 2-1 by Russia. Portugal had recovered to win their remaining two matches, to top group A with 6 points. Spain and Greece both had 4 points, having finished with 1 win , 1 draw and 1 defeat each, and Russia would finish last with a single victory only. Greece would knock out Spain, having scored more goals than the Iberian Giants.
Germany and Italy, two powerhouses in football had also been knocked out in their group stages. Joining Greece and Portugal in the quarter finals were England, France, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.
The real test began for the underdogs.
Greece were drawn up against defending Champions, France. A squad that consisted of Zidane, Henry, William Gallas, Patrick Viera, Mekelele among others. France struggled to find their rhythm and movement in the game. Their stars could not create the spark that was needed. The Greeks punished them. Charisteas scored a 65th minute goal, to secure a shocking win for the underdogs.
The semi-finals pit Greece against Czech Republic. Led by Pavel Nedvěd, Tomas Rosický and Petr Cech, Greece were still not favourites to make the finals. Greece dug in for the match, their work rate overcoming the technique shown by the Czech side, who nearly scored with Tomas Rosický. Greece held off, and nearly came close to scoring in regulation, but Dellas and Giannakopoulos headed the ball straight at Cech. In Extra time, The Greeks finally countered furiously, and in the 10th minute, Dellas finally got the better of Cech, heading the ball into the net.
The final match pitted Greece against Portugal. Incidentally, the first and last match of the tournaments and were contested by the same teams. Portugal had overcome England on penalties in the quarter finals, and 2-1 victory over Netherlands to reach the finals on home turf.
There were no changes from Portugal, but Greece were without a key midfielder, Georgios Karagounis who was suspended. He was replaced by Stelios Giannakopoulos. Unsurprisingly, Portugal created more attempts than the Greeks. They were able to keep the hosts at bay. Greek fans, buoyed by the run their team created, created a wall of noise, given they outnumbered the Portuguese fans at the Estadio da Luz. In the second half, Charisteas headed the ball into the Portuguese net from a Basinas corner to give his side the lead in the 57th minute . They were able to hold out for remainder of the game, the defensive discipline that they showed throughout the tournament kept the hosts at bay. When the final whistle was blown, it was complete, Greece who had flopped in their 2 previous international tournaments, had won the 2004 European Championship.
5 Greek Players were selected in the team of the tournament, and Theodoros Zagorakis was selected as the UEFA Player of the tournament.
Greece were given 80:1 odds at winning the trophy, but they did it. One of the best underdog wins in International football.