Sports are my life and no sport provides more shock and awe than football. In 2004 something miraculous happened, something to this day I still can’t quite fathom. Greece won the European Championships.
A remarkable achievement from an unfancied side that one to eleven and the bench gave everything they had in every game to overcome the odds in a way I’ve never seen before until Leicester City came along.
Greece were a team so unfancied that even their own players were making plans of where and when to watch the knockout stages of the competition. Takis Fyssas assured his fiancé that he wouldn’t be gone long and would be back in plenty of time to make plans for their July 9th wedding.
“I’ll be home by the start of July. I can watch the semifinals and final with my friends, a few beers, a bit of pizza. And then we can have our own celebration. Everybody will be there.”
How wrong he was.
Greece started the competition by beating the hosts Portugal. In only the seventh minute Inter Milan’s Giorgis Karagounis drilled a shot from 25 yards low and hard into Portuguese keeper Ricardo’s bottom right hand corner. What a start for a side few gave a hope to in this game.
The game settled somewhat after this with both sides having chances but none of real note until Portugal’s manager, Luis Felipe Scolari decided that enough was enough and introduced local favourite Deco – as the game was being played in Porto’s Dragao stadium – and the future of Portuguese football, one Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Greek’s were unperturbed and continued to throw everything they had at Portugal and as Giourkas Seitaridis – who had been a constant threat – bombed his way into the box, he was met by a clumsy Ronaldo foul which left legendary Italian ref, Pierluigi Collina, pointing to the spot. Panathinaikos defensive midfielder, Angelos Basinas, made no mistake with the spot kick as he nonchalantly placed the ball in the top right hand corner.
A late Cristiano Ronaldo header from a corner in the 93rd minute did little to dampen the spirits of a delirious Greek crowd nor take away the disappointment of a shell-shocked Portuguese faithful. A dream start for the Greeks and their German manager Otto Rehhagel.
In Greece’s next match, Spain took the lead early as confusion in the Greek box led to Raul winning the ball and finding Morientes who feinted past one man moving the ball to his right and slotted the ball into the bottom right hand corner. Greece had it all to do, 1-0 Spain at the half.
In the second half Greece’s captain Theodoros Zagorakis – formerly of Leicester City and at the time AEK Athens – thundered a strike which whistled past the Spanish post and he then moments later warmed the hands of Spanish number one Iker Casillas as he again drove forward with purpose. Greece were working hard and were earning their luck but the Spanish were wasteful and could have put the game to bed on multiple occasions.
They were left to rue the fact they did not when FC Koln’s Vasilios Tsiartas showed incredible vision and technique to find a cross field pass to pick out Angelos Charisteas and the Werder Bremen man controlled brilliantly and fired through the legs of an onrushing Iker Casillas to put his side level.
So Greece went into the final game of the group having taken four points out of six from the two toughest sides in the group, level on points with Spain and merely needing to match what they did to be assured of a place in the knockouts.
Russia had zero points, were yet to score a goal in the competition and so Greece were favourites to win for the only time in the entire competition. Of course football is never that straight forward so Russia won the game 2-1.
Luckily for Greece, a Nuno Gomes strike in the other game meant that Greece went through by virtue of having scored more goals than Spain. It’s just as well for Greece as the next tie breaker would have been UEFA coefficient and that would have seen the Spanish through.
Thankfully it didn’t or we would have been robbed of one of the greatest underdog stories the beautiful game has seen.
Greece’s prize for getting out of Group A was a tie against two time competition winners and holders France. To put this into perspective, Greece had only made the competition once before this, in 1980.
France had battled through Group B with a 93rd minute Zidane penalty seeing off England in the first game 2-1, a hard fought 2-2 draw with Croatia and a comfortable 3-1 win against Switzerland and were heavy favourites to continue their progress at the expense of the Group A runners up.
Greece of course had other ideas and were by far the better side in the first 45, with Fabian Barthez all that kept the scores level, including a save made on the line which in the days before goal line technology could easily have led to a controversial goal had the linesman not made the right call.
After the restart, France came out with more purpose but Greece weathered the storm and remained the side looking more likely to cause the upset. The Greek team were growing in confidence and this was summed up by left back Fyssas attempting to beat Barthez from 25 yards on the volley, so good was his effort that the French number one was forced to tip the ball over the bar.
Finally their reward came when Zagorakis broke down the right flicking the ball over the head of Bixente Lizarazu and crossing to find an unmarked Charisteas who powered his header past Barthez into the top right hand corner. Greece were at it again! 65 minutes gone and they deservedly led.
Les Bleu frantically searched for an equaliser but between their desperation and Greece’s unrelenting resolve the only real chances of note were two Thierry Henry headers that were off target and Luis Saha beating two players in the box only to scuff his shot into the grateful arms of Panathinaikos stopper, Antonis Nikopolidis.
Greece had done it, they’d beaten the French for the first time in their history and they had made the semi finals of the European Championships. They were still underdogs but they had made an incredible statement.
So to the semi finals and a matchup against a free flowing Czech republic side who had now scored 10 goals in their four matches at the competition.
In all three of their group games the Czechs had had to come from behind to win. First against Latvia from a goal down, then against the Netherlands two goals down in 18 minutes – in what many including myself believe was the game of the tournament – and then again a goal down against Germany.
It seemed that the Czechs had found their defence just in time with a 3-0 thrashing of Denmark in the previous match.
Borussia Dortmund’s young star Tomas Rosicky announced his intentions after only two minutes when his rocket of a volley from just outside the right corner of the 18 yard box left Nikopolidis’ crossbar shaking.
It was then the turn of marauding Udinese left back, Marek Jankulovski, to sting the palms of the Greek keeper from close range, not once but twice.
Half-time and the Greeks were not in the game in an attacking sense at all, this was Czech Republic’s for the taking.
As the second half was about to begin, Vladimir Smicer replaced Pavel Nedved. While Smicer was a good player, Juventus’ Pavel Nedved was a generational talent. How would this affect them going forward?
Well, in terms of the number of chances and grip on the game the answer was not much but there was a noticeable drop in the quality of the chances. Meanwhile Greece were hanging on for dear life and hoping to nick something from a set piece at the other end.
While it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing way to try and win a game, it was visible that the Czech’s chances were becoming less frequent and not on target, while Greece looked more likely to beat Rennes’ Petr Cech with a header or scramble in the box.
Two exceptions to this were a move of quality between the two Dortmund men, Rosicky and the colossal six foot seven Jan Koller who combined in the box but the big man fired a good foot wide. Then there was a determined run by Liverpool’s Milan Baros which took three defenders out of the game but again lacked the finish.
Greece started the brighter, buoyed more than likely by the fact they were still somehow still in this game. Bolton’s Stelios Giannakopolous nearly headed his side in front but for an excellent last ditch save from Petr Cech who as the last line of defence came 15 yards out of his goal to keep the scores level.
A perfect free kick from what must have been 60 yards or thereabouts from that man Tsiartis found Dellas unmarked just outside the six yard box. His glancing header was well placed but Cech was able to parry it away before it was hacked to safety.
It was all Greece now and finally in the 106th minute of extra time they got what they deserved. A silver goal winner (like Golden goal but if you were leading in the first half of extra time, you won) from Traianos Dellas. Again the delivery from Tsiartas was simply sublime and demanded a touch, any touch which would have and indeed did win the game.
You hear people talk about the corridor of uncertainty, well that’s where passes from Tsiartas lived in this competition and he had repeated the feat after once again the Greek defence was simply impregnable.
It was harsh on the Czechs, they certainly didn’t deserve to lose the game but missed chances had come back to haunt them and Greece were not the team in this competition to miss chances against, they had no intention of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Greece were unthinkably heading to a European Championship final!
62,865 packed the Estadio Da Luz, Lisbon, the majority of whom were there to see Portugal crowned European Champions, to many the party had started and it was merely a matter of turning up but as throughout that competition: Greece had other ideas.
Portugal were the overwhelming favourites at home. They had grown throughout the competition, had taken out one of the pre-tournament favourites England on penalties in a game that could have gone either way and most people still weren’t looking at Greece as genuine potential winners.
This was Portugal’s time: Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Rui Costa, Simao, Pauleta, Cristiano Ronaldo and the jewel in their crown, Luis Figo.
What did Greece have in comparison? Surely not nearly enough to overcome these world renowned players. The first time was a fluke, Portugal weren’t ready for that first game but they’d found their feet now, this would no doubt be just a procession, right?
Greece dissuaded everyone of that notion with a piece of early skill from Fiorentina’s Zizis Vrysas as he rabonna’d the ball beautifully into the path of Kostas Katsouranis whose square pass was just too far ahead of Charisteas to smash home. There was no inferiority complex here, the Greeks clearly came to play and this was a statement of their intent.
There wasn’t much else of note that happened in the first half. Portugal attacked, Greece defended but there were no significant quality chances worth mentioning and so at half-time the score was 0-0.
After the break Portugal woke up and two moments of quality from Deco right after each other where he showed his close control and skill to get away from defenders were followed by dives which yielded no response from the ref, Greece were standing their ground.
Then it happened, completely against the run of play. Greece won a corner which was taken by Angelos Basinas and while the delivery was good, it should Probably have been dealt with. Instead Portuguese keeper, Ricardo, was left in no man’s land as Charisteas rose majestically above Ricardo Carvalho right on the edge of the six yard box to give Greece the lead in the 57th minute, his third of the competition a priceless goal.
Incredible. Greece had been here before, they knew how to defend a lead, they’d already done so manfully against France but this was the final of the European Championship and if they did so this time, they took home the cup.
Portugal flooded forward. The battle lines were drawn, the Greek riposte was simple; what we have, we hold.
Cristiano Ronaldo flashed a shot well wide after a nice passing move, before then calling Nikopolidis into action minutes later from the edge of the area. Then it was Figo’s turn to beat a man but scuff his shot harmlessly into the arms of the waiting Greek stopper.
Rui Costa drove a hopeful effort from distance wide before a moment of true quality from the legendary number 10. His sumptuous long pass from the half-way line found Cristiano Ronaldo tearing through the centre of the Greek defence. The ball was slightly overhit and Ronaldo did well to control but fired well over the Greek crossbar.
The quality of passing was not in question but the finishing, especially from a young Cristiano Ronaldo left a lot to be desired.
The atmosphere had reached fever pitch as the baying crowd demanded an equaliser.
Finally a decent effort on target from an unlikely source as Ricardo Carvalho drilled a side-footed effort low towards the bottom left hand corner but Nikopolidis not only saved but managed to parry the ball out of harm’s way.
Another moment of sheer quality as Nuno Gomes finds Figo in the box and the Portuguese captain cruyff turns his way past two Greek defenders but then fires just wide of the left post.
That was to be the last chance for Portugal, it was over. German referee, Markus Merk, sounded the full time whistle and through the kind of defiance usually reserved for Greek mythology these newly anointed Greek Gods had written their own tale of heroism. A modern day legend but this was no myth, as hard as it was for many to comprehend, this was reality.
Not England, not Italy, not Spain, not Germany, not the holders France, nor even the hosts Portugal. It shouldn’t have been, it couldn’t have been and yet it was. Greece were the champions of Europe.
Arguably the greatest underdog story football has seen at this level belonged to them and their countrymen and supporters who they had battled so valiantly for.
As with all quotes their existence is questionable but if accurate then Winston Churchill summed this tournament up when he declared after World War II.
“Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Thank you Greece, football will never forget you.