“The Greeks have made football history. It’s a sensation,” hailed Greece’s German coach, the wily Otto Rehhagel. “There are always surprises. This time we are the surprise.” And what a surprise they were.
Greece, who had never so much as won a match at a tournament finals before, had just won Euro 2004. At the sharp end of international football, shocks rarely come much bigger. For a team of such relatively limited means to win through to claim such a prestigious trophy, beating the hosts, holders, favourites and then the hosts once again for good measure, was an achievement like no other.
And yet the Greece side of 2004 is held up as the antithesis of all that is good about football. One match report from the final, in the Telegraph, even began with the lament that “a tear flowed down the face of the beautiful game” in the wake of the Greek win over Portugal. A negative and defensive team had stunk out the tournament and stifled Europe’s finest into submission; it was the triumph of the dour over the delightful, a victory for anti-football, so the story went.
But it was also a triumph of tactical tinkering, a victory for a team tweaked to nullify each differing opponent, and a team drilled to make the most of the limited opportunities that came their way. For a side that had achieved next to nothing internationally, it was a remarkable success.
Prior to Euro 2004, Greece had played six games in championship finals and had yet to win a match; losing five and drawing one at Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup. They qualified for 2004 by topping their group and consigning Spain to the playoffs, but if that was an indicator of what was to come, it was widely ignored. Even in Greece, hopes were just to improve their dire tournament record, and little more.
However, under the tutelage of Rehhagel, Greece had been on an upward trajectory. With a philosophy shaped by his long and distinguished career coaching in the Bundesliga, most notably with Werder Bremen, Rehhagel developed his system of kontrollierte offensive (controlled offense) with at least two strong headers of the ball in defence, another powerful header in attack, and seeking to attack on the counter through pressure on the wings.
He was a proponent of the virtues of robustness, height and effective set pieces, rather than silky footballing abilities. He brought this style to Greece and in doing so he was able to create a team that was greater than the sum of its parts. Given a squad containing several solid, reliable defenders and midfielders, but limited attacking flair, this wasn’t just a philosophical approach, it was a pragmatic one. Playing an open style of football would have been suicidal.
Rehhagel’s Greece would also prove proficient at adapting their shape to nullify the strength’s of their opponents – something that would become increasingly apparent as Greece progressed through the knock-out rounds. He believed that as the underdogs, Greece’s defensive shape should be dictated by that of the opposition’s attack. The only real constant was making sure they always had a spare man at the back to complement the man-markers.
Greece’s tournament began the same way it would end, with a victory over the hosts Portugal. They provided their first shock in front of a fervent and expectant home crowd by winning 2-1. A further point came in grabbing a draw with Spain, before a defeat to Russia left Greece clinging on to the second qualifying place.
Once in the knock-out rounds, though, the fairy-tale really began to take shape. In overcoming France and the Czech Republic in the quarters and semis respectively, Greece had beaten the holders and then the most swashbuckling attacking team of the tournament so far. Unbelievably, they were into the final where a rejuvenated host nation awaited them.
Rehhagel switched to a more traditional four-man defence to face Portugal’s lone forward, retaining their spare man at the back. Portugal began the final in rampant style, seeking to make amends for their opening day aberration. The attacking quartet of Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, Pauleta and Luís Figo were a constant threat to the Greek defence. But although Portugal enjoyed the bulk of possession, it wasn’t all one-way traffic as Greece looked dangerous on the break, committing sufficient men forward when the opportunity arose.
Just as in the previous two knockout matches, Greece’s most magnificent moment came from another cross from the right. Angelis Basinas swung in a corner which eluded the flailing Ricardo in goal, leaving Angelos Charisteas to head into an unguarded net, sending the noisy Greek corner of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz into a chaotic carnival. This goal was no fluke. It was a near carbon copy of the winning goals from the quarter-final against France, and the semi-final against the Czechs. It was basic but effective.
Portugal laid siege to the Greek goal after that, with Ronaldo and Figo missing the clearest chances, while Traianos Dellas and the goalkeeping George Clooney lookalike, Antonis Nikopolidis, repelled everything else. Incredibly, the 100-1 outsiders as the tournament began held on to become the most improbable of European champions. Ronaldo’s tears after the final whistle were echoed by his nation.
Never before has a team so unfancied gone on to win a major tournament. As reported in the Telegraph, it was “a triumph of tactics over instinct”, of nullifying the opposition threats while maximising the strengths of an inferior squad.
Underdogs aren’t supposed to go all the way and win international tournaments. They can provide the odd shock along the way but come the business end of the competition, they are supposed to gracefully bow out allowing a more traditional, or aesthetically pleasing, nation to win. But Greece had stuck rigidly to what they knew best and had overcome the finest Europe had to offer. And yet they were unloved for it by many.
While it is undeniable that their style was not overly pleasing on the eye, the prevailing negativity towards Greece only became the norm once they actually began to look as though they could win the tournament. Yet, if winning defensively was so easy, more unfancied teams would surely upset the odds as Greece had done. In truth, it was far from easy.
On closer inspection, it could even be viewed, as suggested by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking, as “the tactical achievement of the decade”, as Greece effortlessly switched formations as and when required, and continually posed sufficient of a threat going forward to capitalise on their defensive solidity. Cox continued: “To beat the holders, the best team and the hosts in successive rounds – by the same scoreline, by scoring the same way – doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through immense tactical wisdom and careful deployment of tactics to suit each game.”
Greece in 2004 were superb at adapting their shape to best counter their opponent and were steadfast in implementing the plans laid down by their coach. In securing the unlikeliest of tournament victories, Rehhagel, Charisteas, Karagounis, Zagorakis, Dellas and the rest had guaranteed their places among the Gods of Greek sport forever.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams