The complete story of Euro 2004, when golden generations tumbled

The complete story of Euro 2004, when golden generations tumbled

According to the author Marcel Proust, the main function of the artist is rendre visible – ‘to make visible’. It is their job to help us see the beauty of the world, to make us aware of our place within this transient and shifting landscape.

Proust wrote often about memory; how certain tastes, sounds and textures could transport us to experiences thought long- buried in our subconscious. There’s a term for the sudden onset of nostalgia these moments bring; they’re called a Proustian rush.

Whenever I hear Basement Jaxx on the radio, I get one. It was their song Good Luck that the BBC chose for the opening credits of Euro 2004, the music adorning shots of Patrick Kluivert and Thierry Henry as they skip gleefully around Portuguese landmarks. When I hear those chords, I can see the games being played in the sweltering sunshine of my mind’s eye, the glorious jerseys of red, maroon and orange set against pitches of luscious green.

But if there is one colour I remember most vividly about that summer, it is gold. There was so much of it in Portugal – at least in a footballing sense. It was a congregation of godly talents, from London, Lisbon, Prague and beyond. Finishing my school exams just a week before the tournament started, I remember the waves of excitement washing over me as a month of vibrant football unfolded.

Luiz Felipe Scolari might have different recollections of that period. The Portugal manager had taken over in 2003, after leading an underwhelming Brazil side to the World Cup the year before. “Big Phil” had largely struggled since taking over the Seleção reins, winning seven of his first 15 matches in charge. What’s more, the inclusion of Brazilian-born Deco in his squad had led to some very public rumblings from key players. Velho, as he was affectionately nicknamed (“Old Man”), was becoming cranky.

Concerns about tournament costs didn’t help. After being awarded hosting rights in 1999,  the authorities’ plans had been met with raised eyebrows. “£400 million was an enormous amount of public money to invest for a country widely regarded as the poorest in Western Europe,” wrote Andy Brassell for When Saturday Comes in 2008.

“Even before the tournament, fans were debating why ten stadiums were needed to put on a 16-team competition. Even some hard-core supporters were asking: what about building some hospitals instead?”

Scolari, however, tried to concentrate on footballing matters. In the preceding 12 months, he’d sculpted the team in his image, and whilst the results might not have been ideal he was adamant about who was in charge. “When I was named Portugal’s manager, immediately I opened talks with coaches and experts to get a view of the country’s football from the inside,” he told FourFourTwo in 2011. “They gave me information on several players, and the general opinion was that I should start a process from scratch, creating a new leadership in the dressing room.”

Out went experienced players such as Luis Boa Morte and João Pinto, in came spritely talents such as Simão and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

A 2-1 opening day defeat to Greece, however, placed the Brazilian under renewed pressure. In front of an expectant Lisbon crowd, Scolari had watched powerless as Otto Rehhagel’s side nullified his team’s every attacking impulse. A 2-0 win over a depleted Russian side restored confidence, but the final group game would decide Portugal’s fate.

The opponents were a team they hadn’t beaten in 23 years; a team who had their own designs on the trophy, not to mention a seriously talented squad. But Iñaki Saéz’s Spain were no match for a hungry and focused Portuguese selection, with Nuno Gomes scoring the only goal of a testy Iberian derby. The hosts were though to the quarters, facing an opponent that everybody had been hoping to avoid.

For non-Englishmen, watching the Three Lions can often provide a banquet of schadenfreude. It is a timeless, familiar routine, arcing from bullish, unfounded arrogance to a sobbing-into-your-St George-style early exit.

This was different, though. Sven-Goran Eriksson had led his side through an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard had returned from the injuries that had ruled them out of the previous World Cup, joining a squad that also contained Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and David Beckham.

It was a certain teenager, though, who had most of Europe choking on their continental breakfasts. Wayne Rooney was only 18, but his inclusion in Eriksson’s squad was on merit alone after a startling breakthrough in the Premier League. In England’s first game of the tournament, against France, Rooney had been the undoubted star of the show, buzzing maliciously between the lines before winning a penalty in the 73rd minute that Beckham would contrive to miss. Against Switerzland, meanwhile, the Everton teenager was a corona of violent quality, contributing two rattling goals in a 3-0 demolition.

By the time England faced Croatia in the final group fixture, most commentators had awoken to his quality, but he kindly offered a reminder in any case, rifling a 20-yard screamer past Tomislav Butina. Moments later, he would latch on to a Michael Owen through-ball, dispatching a calmly rolled finish into the net. It ended 4-2, the final whistle bringing two of the tournament’s most dangerous side