July 4th marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the greatest shocks in the history of football. Unfancied Greece, to the surprise of pretty much everybody, became champions of Europe, beating hosts Portugal 1-0 in the final. A team expected to bow out in the group stages defeated three top-seeded teams en route to lifting the cup; the Greek fans quite rightly describe it as a magical summer.
A dream is born
The miracle started on a warm June afternoon at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto. Strangely, the tournament kicked off with the same matchup as we'd see in the final: Portugal vs. Greece. The Greek fans, bedecked in blue and white, had no idea what to expect from their national team. Those who remembered Greece's experience at the 1994 World Cup -- the previous time their country qualified for a major tournament -- were not optimistic, recalling total embarrassment as their national team fled the US with three losses and no goals. They were hoping that at least this time, under the iron discipline of German manager Otto Rehhagel, there would be at least a goal, maybe a draw, and even possibly a win from three matches.
Chris Paraskevas, co-editor of Football Hellas and passionate Greek fan, remembers his feelings then.
As a young fan with only fleeting exposure to the Greek national team (they were barely televised for their diaspora back then), stories were passed onto me from relatives of the disastrous 1994 World Cup campaign. Scratch that: these were more recollection of nightmares, than stories. As such, as a fan my expectation was that Greece would lose every single match and I hoped against hope that they might score a goal and at least be competitive.
The team delivered beyond everyone's wildest dreams.
The opener got off to an incredible start. Just six minutes had passed when Giorgos Karagounis picked up the ball from a Paulo Ferreira mistake, dribbled through the Portuguese half and then unleashed a low shot past the helpless Ricardo. Greece had the lead and continued to push forward. On the other side of the break, Giorkas Sidaridis found himself fouled inside the box by a very young Cristiano Ronaldo. Angelos Basinas stepped up and fired the spot kick home. Greece had something they'd never seen before in a major tournament: a two-goal lead. Portugal pushed desperately forward, scoring through Ronaldo, but it wasn't enough to spark a comeback.
This wasn't a routine win. Greece had defeated the hosts, a team widely touted to potentially win the tournament. Chris Paraskevas' colleague and fan mate, Peter Katsiris described the day: "There was a weird initial feeling of 'what just happened?' followed by 'we actually won' and followed by 'we have a chance.'"
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The opening ceremony had commemorated Portugal's naval heritage; after the upset the Greeks were nicknamed the Pirate Ship.
Another Iberian test
Next up were Spain, another tough test.
Katiris describes the mood: "Since we beat Portugal we couldn’t throw away that result and lose to Spain ... I expected a close game and perhaps a slim win for Spain, but there was a feeling that Greece could close out a result."
With La Liga stars Raul Gonzalez, Ivan Helguera, Carles Puyol and Ruben Baraja, plus Champions League finalist Fernando Morientes, Spain were a team to be feared. Their firepower translated into an early goal as Raul and Morientes linked to open up the Greek defense, the latter curling a volley just past Antonis Nikopolidis' despairing dive. Greece were behind, but their spirit and confidence carried them on. Twenty minutes after the break, Angelos Charisteas received a long pass from the back line, catching the Spanish defense off guard and scoring between the legs of Iker Casillas.
Spain pressed on, looking for the winning goal but the Greek defense held firm to secure a 1-1 draw. With four points after two matches, Greek fans began to feel the real possibility of a quarter-final appearance. They were one point ahead of Portugal and were level with Spain.
Greece's final and most decisive match came against an already-eliminated Russian side looking to salvage some pride after a disappointing tournament. Russia had lost its first two matches against Spain and Portugal without scoring a single goal. But they were by no means pushovers; Russia's Dmitri Kirichenko shocked the Greeks with the fastest goal of Euro 2004. The back line, in total disarray, was punished further when Dmitri Bulykin sent a powerful header past Nikopolidis. With the concurrent match between Spain and Portugal level, the two Iberian sides looked certain to progress. Greece were going home.
Katsiris and his family were among the many fans trembling with nervousness and anxiety. "We opted to listen to the Greece game on the radio and we discovered Greece went 2-0 down early."
However, all changed in the second half. Zisis Vryzas received an aerial pass from Dimitrios Papadopoulos and lobbed the ball over Russian keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev. "We were very nervous about the remainder of the game but when Vryzas scored to make it 2-1 against the Russians we started to see a chance at a comeback," said Katsiris.
Thirteen minutes later, in the other match, Nuno Gomes put Portugal ahead. Greece now held a slender advantage in the group by virtue of having scored more times than Spain. Somehow, both results held: despite losing to Russia, captain Theo Zagorakis could not hold back his tears as the final whistle blew.
Greece had progressed to the quarterfinals, while European powerhouses Spain, Italy, and Germany were eliminated. But there were still plenty of giants to overcome. Facing a heavily favored France team with stars like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira, many Greek fans including Paraskevas viewed the reigning champions as "a completely different proposition to anything we had faced in qualifying or indeed at the tournament."
Not ready to be knocked out
To the surprise of many and especially the fans in blue and white, the game started evenly. Thierry Henry was France's main weapon but Greece countered with Demis Nikolaidis. The Greek backline led by Traianos Dellas and Michalis Kapsis out-jumped and out-maneuvered many of the French attacks. Nine minutes after the halftime break, Theo Zagorakis, leading a counterattack, dribbled down the right flank, chipped the ball over Bixente Lizarazu and passed into the center for Angelos Charisteas to head past a stunned Fabian Barthez. Greece held on once again.
For Greek fans, defeating the reigning champions was something truly remarkable. Paraskevas added that the match was "undoubtedly Greece’s best performance at the tournament" and that Greece "outplayed the French and could well have won by two or three goals."
Pundits believed that Greece's journey at Euro 2004 would end against the Czech Republic. The Czechs were seen as dark horses to potentially win the whole thing, and despite the win against France, the Greeks were not. With players like Milan Baros, Jan Koller, Pavel Nedved, Vladimir Smicer, and Karel Poborsky, the Czechs had won all three of their group matches, no easy feat when one considers that they had to play against the Netherlands and Germany. After seeing off Denmark in the quarterfinals, it seemed obvious that they'd breeze their way into the finals.
The Czechs began on top, with the quartet of Tamas Galasek, Karl Poborski, Tomas Rosicky and Pavel Nedved dominating the midfield. But that didn't last; the turning point came just before halftime, when Pavel Nedved was taken off after colliding with a teammate. Katsiris recalled it as "weak point for the Czechs and they didn’t seem to have the same conviction in attack."
Greece took full advantage, and began to chip away at the Czech Republic's dominance. They did enough to send the match into extra time, and 110 minutes in the deadlock was broken. A Vassilios Tsartas corner found Traianos Dellas in perfect position to score the only 'silver goal' in history.
Greece were in the final and the fans could not believe it. Celebrations where not only in Athens' Omonia square but in all places with a major Greek diaspora. Paraskevas described it as "like being in a dream state."
Not only was the tournament unique in the shocks it brought to the footballing world, but it was first time that the opening and final matches featured the same two teams. Having defeated Portugal just three weeks earlier, Greek fans began to sense victory. Both Katsiris and Paraskevas described the anticipation with confidence and at the time expected Greece to take home the trophy.
As the match began, the Portuguese made amends from their opening day loss. The attacking quartet of Ronaldo, Deco, Pauleta and Luis Figo were a constant menace to the Greek back line. However, the Traianos Dellas-led defense remained organized and focused. Another classic counter attack led to a Greek corner. Stelios Giannakopoulos stepped up and sent the ball into a crowd of red and white shirts for Angelos Charisteas to score. With just half an hour to go, Greece were on the verge of winning the European trophy.
Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images
Portugal responded by bringing on Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes, but to no avail. Despite that late onslaught by the hosts, Greece held on to create one of the biggest shocks in football history.
Celebrations took place all over Greece and the world. The Greek diaspora came together and celebrated through the night in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For Paraskevas, the moment was with his family and for him, "there was plenty of hugging and jumping around, as football brought together different generations of Greek migrants who otherwise would not have found such a collective source of joy and happiness." Similarly Katsiris, who was too young to follow Greece in 1994, Euro 2004 was the first time seeing Greece at a major tournament.
A lasting legacy
Since winning the trophy 10 years ago, the Greek national team has come a long way. Greece is now a regular participant at World Cups and European Championships. The results, however, have been less impressive.
Immediately following Euro 2004, Greece attempted and failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Otto Rehhagel, using a conservative approach, decided to rely on many of the same players that won the trophy, but their steam had run out. Katsiris called it a disappointment but Paraskevas had a different view. Recalling Greece's failure to qualify as European Champions, he said it was an "absolute disaster and an example of a group of players still hung over from their Euro 2004 celebrations ... they didn’t deserve to be in Germany."
Two years later Greece regrouped to qualify for Euro 2008. Thanks to an impressive qualifying campaign, there was confidence that the defending champions would be able to secure a good result, but Greece bowed out without a single point. After being dethroned, Greece later qualified for 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Despite being eliminated in the group stage, Greece defeated Nigeria, collecting their first points and goals at a World Cup. These experiences, however, did not change how the Greeks view their national team.
Paraskevas still has a lot of faith in the team stating these results, "never changed my view of how far the national team ... Greece had become a regular on the world stage, whereas once it was a backwater football country that would have struggled to make the top three of its qualifying group."
In 2011, Greece qualified at the top of their group en route to Euro 2012. The final tournament brought back memories of Euro 2004 when Greece overcame a highly rated Russian team to make it the quarterfinals to face Germany. After conceding in the first half, Greece leveled, but the three goals that were conceded later were described by Paraskevas as a "reality check." Germany were a different class of opponents to those they met in the group stages. Paraskevas was still pleased with the performance, "I was just thrilled at a place in the quarterfinals."
Paraskevas and Katsiris believe Greece have a future in football, and Greece's recent progression to the second round in Brazil only confirms that. Both, like many Greek fans (and most neutrals!),would like to see their national team adopt a more attacking style of play based on players like Sotiris Ninis, Giannis Fetfatzidis, and Kostas Fortunis. Katsiris added that he would like to see fresh talent injected into the team. Paraskevas also wants changes to take place outside the team like an overhaul of the Super League Greece which will provide a solid base for which to build a new team on.
But no matter what happens in 2016 and beyond, Greece will always have one magical moment from ten years ago to hang their hats on.
Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images
A very special thank you is extended to Chris Paraskevas and Peter Katsiris for responding to questions. They are the editors of Football Hellas and can be followed on Twitter at @CParaskevas and @pkatsiris. Chris Paraskevas is also writer for ESPNFC and his columns can be read on the Greece page.