Greece Euro 2004 reminiscences

This is an entry from my journal.

The UEFA Euro 2024 football tournament starts tomorrow. I now realise that it has been 20 years since the 2004 edition when Greece, a minnow in the football world, won the whole thing with an impressive display of disciplined teamwork. Greece had never achieved anything remotely noteworthy until then and has since reverted to being an average side, well below the standard of some of the continent’s elite footballing nations.

For me and many of my friends back then, the 2004 achievement was not a major surprise. Greece had already shown how strong its defensive game was in the qualifiers leading up to the final tournament, including a key victory away from home versus Spain in the summer of 2003. Anyone who thought Greece would be a pushover was simply not paying attention to what national team coach, Otto Rehhagel, was building (yes, Otto Rehhagel is the same manager who led Kaiserslautern to the German national championship on the same year they got promoted to the top division).

Unlike other teams, the Greek squad lacked in the technical department. The lads were hard workers, but no expert would consider them among the most talented players of their era; the kind of figures who can win a game with some moment of magic. This was a side with no standout stars. None of the men would make it into the top clubs of Europe. Matches are played on grass though, not balance sheets. The players and coaching staff believed in themselves and put in their best efforts to reach this monumental achievement.

What I like the most about football is the sense of togetherness with the group. It instils in you not only discipline and commitment, but also respect for the others. You know that no matter how good you are individually, you still rely on your teammates to make things happen. That Greek side’s greatest asset was the unbreakable camaraderie among its members. There were no divas who could sour the atmosphere in the dressing room and no apparent saviour to rely on while eschewing individual responsibility. Everybody understood their role as part of the collective and, above all, knew that victory would be achieved through unflinching togetherness.

The opening game was against tournament hosts Portugal. That Portuguese side was among the most stacked teams in the world (they have been elite for as long as I can remember). They had the spine of that remarkable Porto side, which won continental honours in 2003 and 2004, as well as superstars like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and a young yet already dominant Cristiano Ronaldo. I think the Portuguese were nervous on the opening day: it was their game and tournament to lose. The Greeks, on the other hand, were that tiny pirate ship that out of nowhere loots the fleet of caravels and escapes without much fanfare. And so they did, winning fair and square with two effective attacks combined with the by-now-familiar staunch rearguard action.

The remaining two games of the group stage against Spain and Russia showed that Greece was beatable, albeit tough. The Spaniards were perennial underachievers back then, despite their rich talent pool. Despite a draw and loss, Greece qualified from the group without being the best team in it. That title goes to Portugal. Still, nobody would expect the Greeks to get past the next challenge: defending champions France.

I remember how once we got past the group stages, the belief among the casual football fans in my milieu was growing. Sure, the draw to Spain and defeat by the Russians proved that this team was not going to be a continental powerhouse, but we all knew the game is played one match at a time and that a one goal difference is enough to seal victory. Anything can happen during the match! There were, of course, those who would consider it “impossible” to get past the French panoply of superstars, yet the growing sentiment was that the lads had nothing to fear.

That French side was an embarrassment of riches (they still are top tier). Every line had world class players, led by one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the sport: Zinedine Zidane. The game was pretty even. It followed the expected pattern of France leading in terms of ball possession while Greece being on the defensive. Things were relatively quiet until halfway through the second half, team captain Theodoros Zagorakis chipped the ball past his challenger, crossed it neatly into the box, and then—bang!—a towering header from Angelos Charisteas to score the eventual winning goal. It was then when everybody realised this was no fluke: “King Otto” Rehhagel and the boys were not going down without a serious fight!

Up next was the semi-final against Czechia. This was, in my opinion, the best team of the tournament up to that point. They showed it on the pitch, as they looked dangerous on every attack. It was looking like it was only a matter of time before the Greek defence would crack under the pressure. We were lucky that Pavel Nedved had to leave the pitch with an injury, otherwise he would have made it an even more difficult contest with his capacity to change the course of a game through his vast set of skills. Despite the numerous chances they got, the Czechs failed to capitalise. Then, in the dying moments of the first half of extra time, Greece won a corner kick… Traianos Dellas got to the end of it with a header and the rest is a blur! Czechia was knocked out, while Greece was on to the final where they would face Portugal once more.

By that time, most of the folks back home were convinced we were winning the tournament in the “capital of Greece, Lisbon”. The opening matchday against the Portuguese was already encouraging. Plus, we knew that all we had to do was to continue doing more of the same for one last game. When Charisteas scored a headed goal from another of those deadly corner kicks, everybody went wild! The celebrations that followed the eventual triumph were unlike anything I had experienced before or have witnessed since. People of all ages were on the streets singing and dancing until the early morning hours. I don’t remember going to bed that day…

What I learnt back then is to never discount yourself. When you participate in something that requires commitment, do not have the mentality of a tourist but of a fair competitor. Try your best in earnest. It is not about who wins, but how honest the effort of each of us is. Greece could have been eliminated by the Russians or could have lost the trophy to the Czechs or maybe the Portuguese, yet they showed that they respected themselves from day 1. This made them winners off the pitch at the outset. It is this mentality of not giving up in the face of adversity and of not loathing yourself that can inspire us to rise to the occasion. Try not to overthink the stats and lose all hope while fathoming possible scenaria on a piece of paper. Prove who you are through your deeds. If you try, there is always a chance.