This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
“All I feel is pride, pride, pride.” Speaking to a Guardian journalist while Athens celebrated the most incredible, unlikely, astounding victory in recent times, Maria Kokkinou could barely contain herself.
It is difficult to accurately portray the magnitude of what Maria and her countrymen had just witnessed. Before Euro 2004, Greece had played six, lost five, drawn one and won none in major tournaments. They were the second-worst side in World Cup finals history.
The obstacles they had to surmount were significant, Euro 2004 was a high-quality tournament that served as an international stage for future icons like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Albeit a bit of a cliché, it was a tournament contested by numerous golden generations: Portugal, England, Sweden, Denmark and the other surprise package, the Czech Republic.
They entered this grand stage as underdogs but calling the final result a shock almost does them an injustice in reality. They managed to achieve what the previous champions France couldn’t, what the Czech Republic’s great entertainers couldn’t, what the golden generation of England couldn’t. They were crowned the most stunning of European champions.
Before the final at the Estádio da Luz, Greece had only conceded 11 goals in their previous 11 competitive matches, they averaged 48 tackles per match, and only one goal after half time in the entire tournament. This was no different.
Every time a Seleção player received the ball there was a Greek in their face preventing them making a pass, stifling them. They were effectively playing deep from the start, sticking to their game plan: defend deep, press high. Even in the ninth minute, Greek defenders were letting the ball run out of play to effectively waste time and frustrate their hosts. There was an emphasis on set pieces and long throws – and why not: the majority of their goals in this tournament had come from crosses into the box.
A perfect encapsulation of how Otto Rehhagel wanted his side to play came in the 19th minute. Portugal took a quick free-kick with a young Ronaldo finding himself in a bit of space on the edge of the box. Within seconds he is surrounded by seven Greek defenders displaying the tenacity and passion that made this victory possible.
Every tackle, every press, every block was made with the knowledge that one mistake and this surreal odyssey could come to an untimely end.
But that is one of the glorious aspects of this Greece side – there were no egos or tricks, no deals with Zeus or grandeurs of delusion. It was a side built in the image of their unfashionable coach. ‘King’ Otto Rehhagel, as he’s called in Greece, went from being a tough-as-nails defender in the Bundesliga to a continent-conquering coach thanks to a combination of strong motivational skills and an emphasis on team ethics.
He must be the only German to be bestowed with the gloriously named ‘Order of the Phoenix of the Hellenic Republic’. “He has improved the squad incredibly and a huge piece of the victory goes to him as well,” midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos said at the time. “He’s like our father. We love him.”
The winning goal was classic Greece, so typical of them at these Euros that it’s a wonder Portugal weren’t more prepared. Both of the Greek goals in the knockout stages came from crosses into the box. First, Angelos Charisteas powered in a header against France in the quarters, while defender Traianos Dellas broke Czech hearts by nicking a header in the semis. This goal was practically a carbon copy.
As the camera panned over the Greek fans behind the goal, they were fanning the pitch as if they knew what was coming. Basinas looked up, taking stock of the scene in front of him before delivering a perfect out-swinging ball onto the head of his compatriot striker. Hercules, Perseus, Achilles and now Charisteas, forever immortalised in Greek mythology.
On the sidelines, Scolari just stood there, bemused.
Whether you approve of Greece’s tactics or not, they were as effective as Portugal were lacklustre on this warm Iberian evening. Incredibly, they barely made Nikopolidis in the Greek goal sweat all game, barely testing him until a long-range Ricardo Carvalho effort did with over 80 minutes gone.
At no point during the game did Portugal, led by such a talented generation of players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Deco, play with the urgency of a side desperate for victory. They were a nation yearning to finally grasp the success that had eluded them for so long, but instead they let the minutes trickle away.
Such was the expectation that there was an element of waiting for that special moment to magically happen. But it never came. Instead of seeing their hero Figo lift the Henri Delauney trophy, they would see Eusébio weeping in the centre circle. This Greece team knew that you worked for your moments; Portugal ended up waiting another 12 years for theirs.
Make no doubt about it, this was the Greeks’ day and at no point during this match did they look like losing. They stood firm for the full 95-minute marathon. Theo Zagorakis, who would go on to be aptly named as Player of the Tournament, repelled everything that came his way.
As the final whistle blew in the Estádio da Luz, 2,000 miles away, the Athens night sky was illuminated by fireworks and the Acropolis echoed with cannon fire. Hellas celebrated the day men became gods in Lisbon.
Sixteen years later, it remains one of the most extraordinary victories in the history of the game. Greece may well have been the ultimate pragmatists, they may well have played attritional football, but if you can’t find the joy in their win then football might not be the sport for you.
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan