A Cup of Nations: Euro 2004
As it was at the beginning, so it was to be at the end; the hosts shocked and tearful and the Greeks left in raptures. It saw the rise of the smaller nation, to the detriment of the big guns, just as it had at the 2002 World Cup.
Not even from the deepest realms or archives of Greek mythology and folklore could one have invented let alone forecast of what lay in store at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. The 80/1 rank outsiders – with no previous tournament pedigree – in a space of three weeks from virtual no-hopers, had become the KINGS of European Football in a modern day version of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE; completed in a manner that only one could describe as done with tactical acumen, good organisation, team strength, fitness, mental strength and discipline, and not the familiar attributes associated with Champions, namely, great technique, class or individual brilliance. But it had been a highly efficient, effective, well-oiled, and well-programmed machine, something the continents best could not come to terms with. This magnificent feat achieved with a tireless band of footballers considered not good enough for Roma, Sheffield Utd, and Werder Bremen, comprised of honest hardworking, industrious players, but no world-beaters and no stars of any great note.
The man behind it all, the greatest upset in the history of the international game was a German, an authoritarian, A WORLD-CLASS COACH. Otto Rehhagel was an astute tactician that mastered-marshalled the downfall of the European football hierarchy and had taken Greece to the European summit and become the first foreign coach to win this crown at a tournament. He was largely thought of by most Greeks to be after one last pay cheque before retiring. More remarkable was the fact that they had never achieved a solitary victory in tournament history – well not until now. Ahead of the championships Greece’s record in international competition was poor to say the least, in fact their last outing, at the 1994 World Cup, was an unmitigated disaster as they lost all 3 games, conceding 10 goals and scoring none. From European qualifying Group 6 they had even lost its two opening games, until a remarkable run of six consecutive victories including its best result (at the time) of all-time a 1-0 win in Spain; enabled them to topple their group with just eight goals in 8 games.
They had a cohesive system which no one ever lacked support whether falling back or pushing forward scoring more than most had predicted. But it was its defence and midfield organisation that took them to its first ever major triumph. Though, in eyes of most, the achievement was attained in the most mundane of ways with tactics that were among the most negative, as only Latvia showed less attacking ambition than Greece. As the tournament progressed pundits and fans were left reeling as they tried to grasp time and again that Greece had somehow managed to traverse the considerable footballing obstacles before them.
They beat the hosts twice, held group favourites Spain, lost a match that did not matter (Russia), knocked out the holders and favourites (France) and they toppled the best-balanced footballing outfit Czech Republic. Any team that could do that deserved to be crowned champions. Greece marked the year of the Athens Olympics with a sporting achievement that may be remembered longer than whatever the games had brought the nation.
The climatic game was in Lisbon, 62,865 attended as history beckoned for the Portuguese and its golden generation. Portugal had the advantage of being the host nation and, unlike their Greek counterparts, had a side boasting some of European football’s most gifted players; from the ageing, yet still supreme Luis Figo, to the exciting youngster Cristiano Ronaldo – intent on claiming their due. The onus was on them as the Greeks would be more than delighted to concede possession. Ahead of the final there were concerns that the naturally attacking and expressive Portuguese game would be stymied by Greece, who would attempt to suffocate the game.
Greece was without the suspended Giorgis Karagounis, as Figo was earning his record equalling 110th cap. Theo Zagorakis was also making a record equalling 95th cap. It was Portugal, who had hardly dared hope they would be there, against Greece, who had never dared to imagine it.
As always, the Greeks were well-organised and worked hard. The superb Georgios Seitaridis, Konstantinos Katsouranis, Traianos Dellas and Angelos Haristeas – the man who headed home the game’s only goal – typified the work ethic instilled by Rehhagel, who to his eternal credit managed to create an exceptionally efficient team, far greater than the sum of its technically-limited parts. The goal arrived on 57 minutes, Haristeas rose high above Jorge Andrade to score his third goal of the finals, this from Basinas’s arrowed corner to the edge of the 6-yard box. It had been a virtual carbon-copy goal of the semi-final against the Czechs. The remainder was largely about Portuguese desperation, the host side using a lone striker – and hopelessly ineffective one, Pauleta. Greece balanced the history books with its win in 12 games – 4 wins each and four draws against Portugal who could only blame themselves for their failure. Deco, Figo and Ronaldo froze, much as they had done on the opening day, and Greece capitalised on their stage fright.
It had started on June 10th at the new magnificent home stadium of FC Porto in which Greece were supposed to be nothing but cannon-fodder for the expectant hosts Portugal, and the third favourites, led by the so-called golden generation of Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto. Without the stars of the Champions league, Scolari preferring the veterans, it was to be a mistake-ridden performance with the nervous, jittery and rattled home side all at sea. They looked like a team that had played friendlies for 2 years and allowed the defence-minded visitors – who could not believe their luck – to take advantage; with a seventh minute goal following a mistake from Paulo Ferreira, hailed as Europe’s finest full-back, gifting the ball for Giorgis Karagounis to strike low past the outstretched Ricardo. Then early in the second half Angelos Basinas converted a spot-kick after Ronaldo, who had lost the ball, tripped Seitaridis – the best right-back at the finals by a long way. Half-time substitutes Deco and Ronaldo, despite the added threat could not save the home team. So as the two sets of players left the pitch at the Estadio do Drago on June 10, it was a shock of seismic proportions that Portugal did so as losers after a 2-1 humbling. After falling behind to Morientees’s opener and staring defeat in the face (Raul somehow headed inexplicably wide when Greece’s defeat should have been confirmed) Greece rallied back and caught Spain unguarded; with an equaliser from Angelos Haristeas, which was not entirely deserved, was not entirely unexpected. The Greek bandwagon, carefully steered by Otto Rehhagel, rolled onto an improbable quarter-final despite a defeat to Russia, who had already been knocked out after 2 games. Zissis Vryzas’s goal was to prove crucial in sending his team forward by the virtue of scoring more goals than Spain, with whom they were tied on points, head-to-head record and goal difference. Vassilis Tsiartas summed it up when saying: “We knocked on the door of hell; no one was there.” Finding France a shadow of its great self, Greece, who set out to contain, were ready for the challenge. Missing Viera, broken-arm victim Willy Sagnol, France played without conviction, no feeling nor effort and without a shot on target in the entire first-half. Greece pressed hard in midfield, sat back soaking up pressure with far more space, time and possession than they could have imagined. In one of its carefully planned attacks would they counter with a killer blow as the French defensive weaknesses seen in previous matches were to re-appear. Haristeas was left unmarked to head past Barthez from Zagorakis’s – the driving force and captain – delivery. The fairytale continued following a ‘silver goal’ victory over favourites and snuffed out Czech Republic. In extra-time, the Greeks had finally come out to play, after having defended to the death with a formation designed to stifle the attacking qualities of Czechs. Traianos Dellas headed in the goal with just seconds of the first 15 minutes left. There was no time to restart as Czech players fell to the ground in despair – clever tactical approach from Greece. A fairytale rematch beckoned with hosts Portugal as Greece added the scalp of the tournaments best footballing side. They had completed an unprecedented treble of victories over the hosts Portugal, holders France and now the favourites, the Czechs.
Only three mangers, Rudi Voller, Giovanni Trapattoni and Kobi Kuhn, when asked to predict a surprise team, gave them any hope.
If the Greeks were rank outsiders then by contrast the Portuguese were amongst the very favourites. They were coached by the much-vaunted Brazilian Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, who amongst other successes, had won South America’s Libertadores Cup with two different Brazilian clubs and in 2002 coached Brazil to their fifth World Cup victory. From the ashes of defeat in its opening game – perhaps a blessing in disguise as its under-performing veterans Rui Costa and Fernando Couto were replaced by Porto pair Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, the outstanding defender of finals – Portugal needed to dispel of Russia for game-of-death clash (with badly frayed nerves) in Lisbon four days later to determine whether its participation would continue. They were in danger of becoming only the second European championship host, after Belgium in 2000, to fail to reach the quarter-finals. When they lost to outsiders Greece in Oporto coach Scolari admitted that the team faced an uphill struggle. Portugal’s dream was kept alive with a much needed morale-boost ending Russia’s own involvement before another-do-or-die clash, this time with Spain at the same stadium. Portugal had never beaten the Spanish in a competitive match, and it was 23 years since their last friendly victory over its neighbours. There was a ferocious atmosphere as the hosts, more ambitious and determined turned on the fighting spirit and performance. Cristiano Ronaldo – to outshine his senior Figo largely in the tournament – was to make his first start in a match of few chances but entertaining football charged with nervous energy. A disaster for Portugal, and the for the tournament was averted when substitute Nuno Gomez on 57 minute dispatched the ball low past Casillas condemning the favoured Spanish of Raul fame to an early exit and tumbling out of the competition, and it was unfancied Greece, who took second place. League holders Porto provided the spine of the team in the second and third games, with Costinha and Maniche providing a steel edge to midfield that had been lacking previously, the new players adding movement and pace.
A quarter-final clash with the English at Lisbon’s magnificent Estadio da Luz proved emotional, nerve-jangling, heart stopping as well as dramatic with a bit of controversy – a sense of injustice for the visitors. After surviving a contentiously ruled out goal from Solomon Campbell in the final minute of regular time – apparently for a John Terry challenge on the keeper – Portugal won football’s version of Russian roulette in a never-to-be forgotten penalty shoot-out. Trailing to Michael Owen’s 3rd minute opportunistic strike – a swivelling flick home – the hosts had only drawn level through Helder Postiga’s header (ridiculed at Tottenham) with 10 minutes remaining. Scolari had already taken the brave decision to take off the under-performing Luis Figo with the striker – a questionable choice at time. It had been Portugal’s sixth goal, and five had been scored by subs. And in extra-time, Lampard turned sharply before shooting low to equalise Rui Costa’s stunner. Beckham wildly skied the ball over for the first – repeating his dreadful miss against Turkey in the qualifiers by scuffing sky-high. And Vassell did no better for the crucial sudden death kick leaving the unsung goalkeeper of Sporting Lisbon Ricardo to blast the decisive penalty, the 14th kick hard and low past the much-maligned James for an end to an emotionally-draining contest. Having arisen from the slumbers, a semi-final meeting with the Dutch for a place in its own final was next on the agenda. Interestingly, ever since France triumphed on home soil in 1984 the trend had been for the hosts to fall at the semi-final stage – Germany 88, Sweden 92, England 96, and Holland in 2000. Not so Portugal, the momentum that had been building throughout the tournament carried them past Holland and through into their first final at a senior major tournament. This on a date that 2 years earlier coach Scolari had led Brazil to triumph at the World Cup, significantly, it was 13 years also to the day that Portugal had won under 20 world youth cup – Luis Figo, Rui Costa fame. Figo the outstanding player of the night had watched his side’s quarter-final victory from the isolation of the dressing room. Cristiano Ronaldo rose unmarked to power home Deco’s corner before Van Nistelrooy thought he had equalised, but was ruled offside. Maniche all-action-all-rounder and a star of finals then collected Deco’s short corner ran unchallenged before blasting an unstoppable shot just inside far post. Looking dead and buried Holland got a slice of luck when Jorge Andrade sent the ball looping over Ricardo for an own goal. They held on despite desperate efforts from Holland, who threw on an extra striker Pierre van Hooijdonk. Then it was its bogey team Greece as Portugal failed to emulate Spain (1964), Italy (1968) and France (1984) by winning as host. On the whole they had performed credibly, this considering they had been the first host nation to lose an opening tie.