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 sides together.

Sometimes you can feel the weight of an occasion. It is implicit in the nervous energy of the people around you, the gravitas of every word you hear. Other times, it hits you right in the face, like it did on the evening of 24 June 2004.

As Portugal and England lined out in Lisbon, it felt like every corner of the stadium was wrapped in red and white. Every inch of space was occupied, photographers and stewards and ballboys and players jostling for gasps of soupy Portuguese air. The cameras panned across the field, across the faces of men whose legacies would shortly be defined. Ricardo, the Portuguese goalkeeper. Darius Vassell, the tearaway Aston Villa striker. Urs Meier, the soon-to-be-infamous referee. The cameras rested, however, on the face of the pockmarked genius from Croxteth. Would this be Rooney’s arrival on the world stage?

No, as it turned out, with a freak first-half challenge from Jorge Andrade forcing him off injured. Suddenly, England were robbed of their attacking impetus, forced to hobble on after Owen had roundhouse-kicked the opener after three minutes.

Hélder Postiga didn’t do much before or after that fateful night in Lisbon, but it was his 83rd-minute header that restored parity for the hosts. As extra time dawned, a Rui Costa rocket was bookended by an opportunistic swipe home from Frank Lampard. Desolate, the teams settled for penalties.

Beckham – the ghost of the 1998 World Cup exorcised by a captain’s performance in Korea/Japan – was the first England player up. The resultant shot went high over the stands, with the Real Madrid man remonstrating angrily with the penalty spot. Rui Costa was the next to miss, an admirable attempt to shoot the ball higher and wider than his English counterpart. It was sudden death.

“I need to think about where I want to put the ball and striking the ball cleanly and not change my mind,” admitted the striker of England’s sixth penalty to Off the Ball in 2017.

It was a sensible gameplan, but not enough to prevent Vassell’s effort being saved superbly by a gloveless Ricardo. When the same man raked the next penalty into David James’ bottom left corner, England’s brief whiff of glory was over. Normalcy, with all its ‘what-could-have-beens’ and ‘if-not fors’, had finally been restored.

This is English football, though. Which means, regrettably, that the English press have something of an interest. Cue, then, a relentless and unfounded campaign of intimidation against match referee Meier, after he had correctly ruled out a Sol Campbell goal for a John Terry foul in the box. The English tabloids pooled their vitriol towards this bemused domestic appliance salesman. Even his family and personal life were fair game, victims of a torrent of abuse that saw Meier receive thousands of hate mails and death threats.

The opprobrium, unfair as it was, spoke to the pain of England’s loss. With the squad they had, in the form they were in, it was the biggest opportunity in decades to bring home a trophy. It was something even Rooney was aware of, telling Gary Neville’s Soccerbox years later, “I just felt unstoppable. I felt no defender could handle me at that time. It was just so disappointing to get the injury and I think, even though I was only 18, I could feel some of the players were on that wave and riding it with you. When I got injured, you could just feel everyone a bit deflated.”

For Scolari and co, however, England’s pain was pure joy – amplified, at least in part, by the fact that they would be dodging the fancied Czech Republic in the semi-finals. For so long the favourites of football’s incipient hipster crowd, the Czechs had failed to build on their accomplishments at Euro 1996, making no impression in Holland and Belgium or at the subsequent World Cup. The tournament in Portugal offered a final reprieve for this coterie of gilded totems and, despite the blunt aphorisms of dour coach Karol Brückner, his side was not to be trifled with.

The Czechs’ staid 4-4-2 belied the embarrassment of riches at their disposal. With Petr Čech, Marek Jankulovski and Tomáš Ukfaluši bolstering the defence, Tomáš Galašek was free to marvel at the magic of those in front of him. Karel Poborský, Tomáš Rosický and Pavel Nedvěd offered no quarter, a gaggle of tireless, quaffed technicians who would surely chug and dazzle their way through the group stages.

Igors Stepanovs had something to say about that, though. It was his Latvia side who faced the Czechs on Gameday 1, and it was his sumptuous through-ball that set Andrejs Prohorenkovs free on the left-hand side to cross for Maris Verpakovskis. The Dynamo Kyiv striker, escaping some complacent Czech marking, was left with a simple finish.

The game wore on, the Czechs labouring under the boiling afternoon sun (Jan Koller would need an intravenous drip after the match, having lost five kilos in weight during the ninety minutes). Suddenly, all the insidious doubts that had dominated discussions before the tournament returned. Nedvěd really had finished the season poorly, hadn’t he? Rosický really was struggling with injury, wasn’t he? Were Poborský‘s legs finally beginning to tire?

The doubts evaporated, however, as Milan Baroš stepped up to slice home an equaliser with 17 minutes left. With the Latvians tiring, Czech momentum grew. Inevitably, Marek Heinz raced off the bench to stab home a late winner.

Despite the late Czech flurry, Messrs Seedorf, Van der Sar and Davids may have been forgiven for being quietly confident ahead of the Netherlands’ second group game in Aveiro. They had the better squad, after all. They had more big-game experience, too. But what they also had, being a team of the finest Oranje vintage, was a spectacular ability to implode. It meant that, even when goals from Wilfred Bouma and Ruud van Nistelrooy saw them race into an early lead against the Czechs, the tie was far from over.

Koller, who looked as suited to the Portuguese heat as an Eskimo in Tenerife, browbeat a consolation goal midway through the first half. Then, after some fine work from a midfield that was slowly rediscovering itself, the Dortmund striker chested down for Baroš on the edge of the box. Baroš, who was playing the best football of his career, smashed home the resulting half volley.

It was a question of when and not if the Dutch dam would break. With just two minutes left, Heinz shot a bolt towards Van der Sar’s bottom corner. The Fulham goalkeeper could only palm into the path of the onrushing Poborský, who squared for a delighted Vladimír Šmicer to finish. 3-2, and curtains on one of the greatest games of the decade.

Netherlands coach Dick Advocaat could only marvel at the tactical flexibility demonstrated by his counterpart. It was Brückner’s hand, after all, that had swung the match in the Czech Republic’s favour, with the first-half decision to swap Zdeněk Grygera for Šmicer paying dividends. The Dutch had been wrong-footed, but the old dog wasn’t done yet.

At one point, marvelled ZonalMarking writer Michael Cox in 2010, the Czechs “had three forwards, four attacking midfielders, another winger at full-back and two centre-halfs” on the pitch. It was a phenomenal display of bravado from the man christened Kleki Petra in his homeland, after the brave Indian leader from the famous Karel May novel.

The buoyancy of the Netherlands win transmuted directly into the final group game against Germany, whose own tournament had already descended into ignominy after two consecutive draws. An under-strength Czech side compounded their misery with a 2-1 whitewash, setting up an eminently winnable game against Greece.

Every fairytale has an end, of course. It’s just that everybody thought the Greeks, not the Czech Republic, would be leaving the ball with their slippers in tow. Ever since that first-day victory over the Portuguese, Rehhagel’s charges had carried on, ignorant of the sniggering commentariat. Surely, the pontificators wagered, this drab Greek wall would crumble when faced with serious opposition.

That fallacy remained intact even after they qualified at Spain’s expense from the group-stages. It remained intact, too, after Angelos Charisteas’ goal granted them victory over an out-of-sorts France in the quarters. Now, against a rejuvenated Nedvěd et al, convention and propriety would in all likelihood return.

Because here’s the thing: Greece had no right to be there. Those Adriatic upstarts, whose only previous appearance at a tournament had been a humiliating show at the 1994 World Cup. None of their players had any reputation of substance; Theodoris Zagorakis, the national captain, was remembered in England only for having the audacity to challenge his then-manager Martin O’Neill about his playing record whilst at Leicester. O’Neill, after politely reminding the midfielder about his European Cup medal, had promptly booted him back across the Mediterranean.

The difference, as Europe’s glitterati were finding to their chagrin, was that the Greeks were a true team. A phalanx of journeyman, muddling their way through inauspicious careers back home, were transformed into a brigade of bastards under Rehhagel’s tutelage. “It was more like a family,” Takis Fyssas, the team’s starting left-back, told ESPN in 2016. “We were very close. We would sacrifice everything for each other.”

The Czechs knew they had a game, especially when Nedvěd trudged off with an injury before halftime. By then, Antonis Nikopolidis – arguably the most handsome goalkeeper ever to grace a European finals – had made a string of saves, with Rosický hitting the bar.

Yet the Greeks held on, mounting a rearguard action that the builders of the Benes Line would have been proud of. Time and again the Czechs attacked, time and again they were rebuffed. Then, in the dying seconds of the first period of extra time, Traianos Dellas rose to meet a corner. One-nil to the Greeks, as a familiar and sickly feeling settled in the millions watching at home. The greatest upset of the tournament had been delivered.

Mercifully, there was no such thing as a hot take in those days, but it didn’t stop the critics weighing in. Greece were to be damned as peddlers of anti-football, the harbingers of a new era of boring play, tactical rigidity and stifling discipline. The same critics were slow to praise the iron-clad confidence that Rehhagel – himself a Bundesliga-winning coach – had instilled in his players.

They were slow, too, to appreciate the 15-game unbeaten run that the Greeks had completed ahead of the tournament, a run that included a victory on Spanish soil. The truth is that had anybody bothered to look, the signs of Greek potency were already there. But this footballing Medusa was happy to be ignored, knowing that opponents would petrify when confronted with its terrifying defence and Spartan organisation.

One game remained. Portugal, making their first-ever appearance in a competitive final, had secured their passage with a 2-1 win over the Netherlands. A magnificent Maniche curler had proven the difference then, and it felt like a similar moment of quality could be enough to decide the final too. Everyone expected a cagey 90 minutes, a cautious spar between two prizefighters who could scarcely believe their good fortune.

Predictably, Portugal went on the offensive, baited by bloodthirsty home support. It helped that the hosts, based in the capital, had had an extra day’s rest. Yet Piratiko – or ‘The Pirate Ship’ as this band of scruffy ne’er-do-wells were christened back home – defended stern and aft, port and starboard, scrapping with daggers ‘twixt their teeth and fire in their belly.

Rehhagel, incongruous in his slimline sportswear, was cast as a grimacing PE teacher on the sidelines, Run, he seemed to say, for the glory of Athens awaits.

Perhaps it was fitting that the winning goal be so ugly. Charisteas, lurching into the air like a jacked-up meerkat, making awkward contact with yet another Basinas corner after 57 minutes. The ball choked down the throat of the goal, propelled by brutish force rather than deft direction. It was a muscular strike, making up in heft and execution what it lacked in creativity and craft.

Inevitably, the victorious Greek squad became national heroes. Yet Stelios Giannakopolous, the winger who played such a pivotal role in his sides’ success, was keen to dampen any expectations about what the win might bring. “Nothing brilliant has happened,” he told the BBC a year later. “I had hoped after Euro 2004 that things would be better but that has not happened.”

Chris Paraskevas, writing for ESPN ten years on from the triumph, was equally scathing, suggesting, “Greek football has regressed substantially since. The standard and professionalism of the Super League has declined to the point where Olympiacos are able to stroll to domestic doubles with minimal effort.”

It is only in recent years, with the emergence of PAOK, that the hegemony has been threatened. For Greek football fans, Euro 2004 feels like a missed opportunity.

The big sides roared back, as they always do. England won qualifying groups before collapsing when it mattered; Germany and Spain reinvented themselves to each win the World Cup within a decade. But for one month in 2004, the footballing world was turned on its head. Golden generations tumbled, undone by the very ordinary gifts of grit, guts and organisation.

Nobody expected it to last, but nobody expected it to happen in the first place either. At a time when upsets are becoming increasingly rare, Euro 2004 reminds us of football’s innate potential for chaos. It reminds us that, no matter how much we study this game, we can never truly know it. All we can do is savour the surprises, and luxuriate in the Proustian rush of being there, seeing it and reliving the memories for a lifetime.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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