As football entered the twenty-first century its race towards full industrialisation had more or less been completed. Resource management had become everything. In club football, scouting networks had diversified in order to fall quickly upon any young player spotted that hadn’t already got a professional contract, whilst at international level the stigma surrounding appointing foreign coaches had been diluted with several high profile European appointments. Football, both at club and international level, had long since become stratified, with familiar faces expected to win familiar trophies. In 2004, though, the rule book was tossed aside by a team and a coach who understood their limitations and played within them to a tactical system which sought to minimise risk and maximise gain, and what came to pass was possibly the greatest surprise win in the entire history of international tournament football.
Football has been passionately followed in Greece for almost as long as the game has been codified, but the Greek national team had seldom given those back home a great deal to cheer about. It took until 1980 for the team to reach the finals of a major tournament and, having finally achieved this for that years European Championships, their stay in Italy was a brief and not particularly happy one, with the team returning home following defeats at the hands of the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia and a goalless draw against West Germany. It would be another fourteen years before Greece would get the chance to prove themselves on the world stage, but their performance at the 1994 World Cup finals proved even more disappointing, with the team crashing out of the group stages, without having scored a goal and conceding ten from three defeats at the hands of Argentina, Bulgaria and Nigeria.
The green shoots of improvement, however, could be seen from here on and Greece were only narrowly edged out of qualification for the 1996 European Championship and the 1998 World Cup finals. By the time of the new millennium, a familiar routine had manifested itself. Greece would either come achingly close to tournament qualification or would have a disappointing run and miss out by a distance. The result, however, would always remain the same – the coach, whether his margin of failure been agonisingly narrow of horrifically wide, would pay for the failure with his job. In 2001, it was Vassilis Daniil who paid with his job during a disappointing qualification round for the upcoming World Cup finals and it was his replacement in the position, the German Otto Rehhagel, who would come to oversee their unexpected improvement in fortunes.
Rehhagel had been a defender at the birth of the Bundesliga, making three hundred appearances for Rot-Weiss Essen, Hertha Berlin and Kaiserslautern over twelve years before retiring as a player in 1972. His club managerial career came to be defined by two appointments, one extremely lengthy and the other which lasted just a single, solitary season. After spending the 1970s at a variety of different German clubs, Rehhagel settled at Werder Bremen and over fourteen years between 1981 and 1995 he managed to transform the fortunes of the club, bringing it the Bundesliga title and the DFB-Pokal (the German equivalent of the FA Cup) twice each and the UEFA Cup in 1992. This success brought him to the attention of Bayern Munich, and he moved to the giants in 1995 but lasted less than a season and was sacked three weeks before the 1996 UEFA Cup final.
After this, Rehhagel returned to Kaiserslautern – where he had made almost one hundred and fifty appearances as a player – and led them into the Bundesliga in 1997 and then to become the first newly-promoted club to win the German title at the first attempt a year later. Rows behind the scenes, however, raised its head again, as it had done previously at Bayern Munich and he left the club in 2000. His appointment into the position as the Greek national coach came following the sacking of Vassilis Daniil, following a five-one defeat in their penultimate qualifying match against Finland. The transformation of the team for his first competitive match in charge, at Old Trafford in Manchester against England, was immediate.
England needed a win – or a point if Germany failed to beat Finland at home in their final group match – from their final match in order to ensure automatic qualification for the finals and avoiding a tricky looking two-legged play off against Ukraine, but Rehhagel’s Greek team was a very different beast to the one that had capitulated against Finland a month earlier and they took the lead with a goal nine minutes half-time from Angelos Charisteas. Teddy Sheringham levelled for England midway through the second half, but within a minute Greece were back in front with a goal from Demis Nikolaidis. With Germany unable to break Inland down in their final match, England only needed a single goal to qualify automatically, but it took until three minutes into stoppage time before David Beckham swung an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner of the goal. For England, then, came considerable relief at getting through. For Greece, however, there was enormous pride at a job well done in a match that was, for them at least, ultimately meaningless, and considerable cause for optimism that the new coach could return them to winning ways.
There was, over the next couple of years, cause for both optimism and delight for Greek supporters. On the one hand, a strong joint bid with Turkey to host the 2008 European Championships was fatally holed after serious crowd trouble at a UEFA Cup match between Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos and the two countries missed out in favour of a joint bid between Switzerland and Austria. More positively, the progress made by Otto Rehhagel continued in their qualifying group for the 2004 tournament. The team started weakly, losing to group rivals Spain and Ukraine in their opening two matches. From here on, though, the team clicked and they went on a run of six successive wins – including a 1-0 win against Spain in Zaragoza – to win the group, finishing off with a win against Northern Ireland which sent them through automatically and consigned Spain to the play-offs.
In spite of winning their group, however, Greece had the second lowest qualification coefficient of all of the sixteen qualifying teams for the finals of the 2004 European Championships and were in the bottom pot for seeding purposes, with some bookmakers offering odds as long as 150/1 against them winning the tournament. The draw did them no great favours either. They were drawn to play the host nation, Portugal, in their opening match and would follow this with another testing match against Spain before finishing off with a match against Russia. The team’s previous performance in the finals of international tournaments – just one draw and five defeats from six matches at the 1980 European Championships and the 1994 World Cup finals – didn’t fill many Greek supporters with much confidence, either. Whispered quietly, damage limitation was as much as many hoped for from the finals.
At the Estádio do Dragão in Porto, then, Greece lined up for the opening match of the 2004 European Championship finals. The host nation Portugal were amongst the favourites to win the tournament, but Greece, in spite of a defensive formation, shocked the hosts with a long range shot from Giorgos Karagounis after seven minutes and a penalty from Angelos Basinas six minutes into the second half. A goal deep into stoppage time from Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t enough to prevent a humiliating home defeat for Portugal, and four days later Greece followed up this shock by coming from a goal down to draw with Spain, again in Porto. Fernado Morientes gave Spain a first half lead after some sloppy defending, but a second half equaliser from Charisteas left Greece going into their final match against Russia, who were already eliminated after having lost to Spain and Portugal, with their destiny very much in their own hands.
Within two minutes of their final group match, however, their hopes of getting through were battered when Dmitri Kiminchenko scored the fastest goal in the history of the final tournament to give Russia the lead, and things got even worse for Greece when Dmitri Bulikin doubled Russia’s lead fifteen minutes later. Just before half-time, however, Zisis Vryzas pulled a goal back for Greece and this proved to be critical. In the other final group match being played, a second half goal from Nuno Gomes gave Portugal the lead against Spain and this was how the scores stayed. By the thinnest of possible margins, on goals scored, Portugal were through to the quarter-finals at the expense of Spain. Vryzas’ goal may only have been a consolation in terms of the match in which they were playing at the time, but its value could hardly be understated.
Second place in the group may have been enough to see Greece through to the quarter-finals, but the scale of the challenge ahead of them was thrown into sharp focus by the identity of their next opponents – the tournament holders, France. There was a hint of optimism to be taken from France’s largely underwhelming group stage performance in this tournament and their capitulation in the group stages of the World Cup finals two years earlier, but this was still another massive challenge for Greece. Rehhagel played it safe and opted to play a game that focused upon defence and trying to break to catch the French out. On sixty-five minutes, they struck, a cross from the right from Theodoris Zagorakis for Angelos Charisteas to head past the French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. It turned out to be the only goal of the match.
Their semi-final opponents, the Czech Republic, had been looking ominous in beating Latvia, the Netherlands and Germany in the group stage and had swatted Denmark aside with a 3-0 win their quarter-final match. Against Greece, however, the goals ran out. Tomas Rosicky hit the crossbar early on and it looked as the Czechs were going to prove too strong for Rehhagel’s team, but an injury to their influential forward Pavel Nedvěd was a serious blow, and the match went into Silver Goal extra-time with the score still goalless. The Silver Goal rule determined that any team leading after the first fifteen minute half would win the match outright, and in stoppage time at the end of the first period of extra time, Greece struck when a corner from substitute Vassilios Tsiartas was flicked past the Czech goalkeeper Petr Čech by defender Traianos Dellas. It was the only time that a match in a major tournament finals was decided by a Silver Goal, and it sent the Czechs crashing out of the competition and the outsiders from Greece through to the final of the tournament.
Surely, though, a rematch against the hosts in Lisbon would be too much for this Greek team, even if they did beat them in their opening match. Portugal had shown considerable reserves of character to bounce back from their opening day defeat to beat Russia and Spain to qualify as group winners, and then to find a way through England thanks to a penalty shoot-out win and the Netherlands in their semi-final match. Rehhagel again went with caution, and yet again the tactic worked. Twelve minutes into the second half, a corner from the right-hand side by Angelos Basinas which was headed in, again by Charisteas. Portugal pushed forward for an equalising goal with increasing depseration. Cristiano Ronaldo evaded an offside trap but over-hit the ball as he attempted to lift the ball over the advancing Greek goalkeeper, Antonios Nikopolidis. Luis Figo curled a low shot narrowly wide. The goal, however, wouldn’t come and at the final whistle the unthinkable had happened: Greece, playing in only their third ever major tournament finals and their first in a decade, were the champions of Europe.
It didn’t, of course, last. It couldn’t. The domestic game in the country had been in crisis since the collapse of television company Alpha Digital in 2002. The company had outbid rivals for rights to the Alpha Ethniki (“First Division”) by bidding three times as much as its nearest rivals, but take-up was slow and the company collapsed, leaving the clubs of the league owing €185m and with a combined income of less than €7m per year in gate receipts. The league went on strike after the government refused to bail them out, but the strike lasted barely a month before collapsing. Several clubs teetered on the edge of closure, including the Athens giants AEK, and in 2006 Superleague Greece was formed by the top sixteen clubs to replace Alpha Ethniki as the top level of the Greek league system. The national team was unable to repeat its form and qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and when they travelled north for the 2008 European Championship finals it looked as if normal service had been resumed when, in spite of being one of the top seeds as the hosts, they lost all three of their group matches against Spain, Russia and Sweden. At the last World Cup finals in South Africa, they were again knocked out in the group stages, this time by South Korea and Argentina, although the team did at least register its first ever World Cup finals win, against Nigeria in Bloemfontein. Otto Rehhagel, the man that had brought Greek football its one extraordinary moment in the sun, retired at the end of the tournament, although he was lured back into management earlier this year with Hertha Berlin.
This summer, Greece will be in Poland and Ukraine for the European Championships having qualified for their third major tournament finals in a row. Their triumph eight years ago, however, was one of firsts. It was the first time that one team had beaten both the hosts and the holders in the finals of the tournament, and it was the first time in the history of either the European Championships that the opening match had been between the same two teams as those that contested the final. For Greece, meanwhile, that opening day win against Portugal was their first ever win in the finals of a major tournament. Some have chosen to criticise the defensive tactics that Rehhagel chose for this tournament, but that he should have chosen to play like this should hardly be a surprise, considering the odds that were stacked against his team. It’s not that Greece played ugly football at Euro 2004, merely cautious, and even the extent to which it was merely a flash in the pan can be doubted from the calibre of opposition that they beat in order to win the tournament. In creating the arguably the biggest shock in the entire history of the European Championships, Greek football hit an Olympian height that the team was never likely to be able to repeat. Regardless of anything else, though, Greek supporters will always have the summer of 2004 and the team that stunned European football.
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