Heart of Football

When Greeks became Gods: Euro 2004’s epic final

Euro 2020 will go down as one of the more unusual tournaments; spread over 11 host cities from Baku to Glasgow, delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and countless records tumbled. It certainly wasn’t the first to shock fans though; today we look back at the final of the 2004 edition in Portugal, where Greece completed arguably football’s greatest underdog triumph.

The build-up

The final of UEFA Euro 2004 curiously ended up being a repeat of the tournament’s opening game, when Greece defeated hosts Portugal. The Greeks triumphed 2-1 courtesy of goals by Georgios Karagounis and a penalty from Angelos Basinas, acting as party poopers on Portugal’s big night.

After their shock loss in the opening game, the Portuguese responded impeccably. Their second game saw them defeat Russia 2-0 courtesy of Maniche and Rui Costa goals. In their final group game against fierce Iberian rivals Spain, a second half Nuno Gomes strike sent Portugal through as group winners.

The hosts then faced England in the quarter-final. After a dramatic 2-2 draw after extra time, the tie went to penalties. Portugal unsurprisingly prevailed 6-5 in the shoot-out to set up a semi-final against Netherlands. Regulation time was enough against the Dutch, as goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Maniche sent them through to the final.

After their opening victory, Greece then faced Spain in Porto. Trailing 1-0 in the second half, Angelos Charisteas equalised for Greece on 66 minutes in an eventual 1-1 draw. In their final group game against already-eliminated Russia, Greece trailed 2-0 after just 17 minutes. However, a vital goal by striker Zizis Vryzas before half time meant the Greeks progressed ahead of Spain on goals scored, despite a 2-1 loss.

In the quarter-finals against defending champions France, Greece’s shock run was expected to end. However, Charisteas once again proved decisive, his 65th minute goal leading Greece to a stunning 1-0 win. Facing the fancied Czech Republic in the semi-finals, once again, the curtains were expected be drawn on the Greek fairytale. A Traianos Dellas header just before half-time in extra-time – the first ever Silver Goal in competition history – sent Greece through to the final.

Superb structure and a perfect set-piece delivers historic Greek triumph

Despite Portugal having more chances, the first half was very evenly-matched in territory. The Greeks, coached by legendary German manager Otto Rehhagel, continued their superb defensive organisation and out-of-possession structural play that had been in evidence in previous games.

The mastermind behind Greece’s epic Euro 2004, Otto Rehhagel

Throughout the first half, Greece had some set-piece chances. Whilst none led to any goals, they all forced intervention from the Portuguese defence. No set pieces were wasted, outlining how much practice had been done by Rehhagel’s team in training between matches.

This detail would eventually come to fruition on 57 minutes. A corner from the Greek right came into the Portuguese penalty box where Charisteas – who else? – got ahead of Portuguese defenders Jorge Andrade and Ricardo Carvalho to score with a header. 

Whilst the first half was territorially even, Portugal did force Greece back into their own half for much of the second, especially after going behind to Charisteas’ goal. Even still, they were unable to find an equaliser and Greece held on to stun Portugal a second time, sealing a European Championship title against all odds.

The greatest international underdog triumph ever?

Greece’s squad possessed no stars that the likes of pre-tournament favourites Portugal, France, Italy and Germany had, but Rehhagel was still able to mould unfancied players into a disciplined and effective unit. Despite a lack of flair players, organisational ability, well-drilled set-pieces and excellent coaching brought home the most barely believable of triumphs.

There are two strong arguments in favour of Greece’s victory being the greatest underdog triumph. Firstly, they were reportedly 150-1 to win with bookmakers, only Latvia had greater pre-tournament odds. Secondly, at the only other major tournaments pre-Euro 2004 that Greece had qualified for, Euro 1980 and the 1994 FIFA World Cup, they returned home winless both times.

Silencing the critics

After their famous victory some decried Greece’s triumph, labelling them a defensive set-piece team. Defenders of Rehhagel’s troops retorted by pointing out how when the veteran German coach managed Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern to Bundesliga titles, both sides were renowned for attacking play.

At any rate, how could Greece realistically expect to play given such a limited talent pool? The magnitude of Rehhagel’s success in the final was heightened by the fact that it was achieved without their main creative attacking player, Giorgios Karagounis. The Inter Milan attacking midfielder missed the game through suspension, having accumulated yellow cards in both the quarter and semi-finals

Greece’s triumph demonstrated the value of team play over individual brilliance. Not one Greek player was carried in the final. A fine example of this was Stelios Giannakoupoulos; the Bolton Wanderers winger started on the left wing in the final ahead of Karagounis, and performed immaculately in both attack and defence. It was as if Karagounis’ influence on the team had never gone.

The biggest compliment you can pay Greece though was that the final victory was not fortuitous. Even when defending in the final 20 minutes as Portugal sought an equaliser, they never looked stretched. No last ditch defensive tackles, no frequent Portuguese goal-scoring chances were created. It showed fine defending and organisation should also be applauded in the same way attacking play is.



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