The History of The UEFA Euro: 2004, “Boring” Greece Stun Europe

Euro 2000 is considered by many to be one of the most exciting tournaments in the history of international football. However, as the law of life would have it, things are never stable and fluctuate over time with each passing year. The UEFA Euro 2004 is the perfect sporting example that reflects this principle, as the tournament was a total contrast to what took place in the Netherlands and Belgium four years earlier.

In its purest form, the 2004 European Championship in Portugal is considered one of the dullest and least entertaining major football tournaments in history; however, a broader perspective suggests that Euro 2004 could simultaneously be regarded as one of the most exciting ever, given the tournament’s winner and the story behind it. Generally speaking, the tournament was rich in surprises and upsets, which in some ways masked the lack of entertainment in terms of the quality of the matches and the performances of the teams.

The team that defined Euro 2004 was Greece. As the second least likely team to win the tournament at odds of 150-1, they were given absolutely no chance to do anything extraordinary that summer in Portugal. The Greeks themselves did not hold out much hope and were content to play in a competition for the first time in 24 years. The only thing they hoped for was to win at least a single game, but what happened next over the course of a month was a complete shell-shock for everyone involved in the football community.

The tournament marked the third anniversary of the revised format that had been introduced prior to Euro 1996 that took place in England. Sixteen teams contested at Euro 2004 after winning their qualifying groups or making it through the play-off stages, which were in turn divided into four groups of four, with the top two teams progressing to the final stages of the competition. Ten teams had made it to Portugal in 2004 who had also taken part at the European Championship four years ago, with several returning teams and one debutant nation completing the list. Bulgaria, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia returned after missing out on Euro 2000, whilst Latvia made their first and so far only appearance at the European Championship finals that summer.

Against all the odds: Greece lift the European Championship title

Despite a history of almost 100 years on the international stage and a deep-rooted passion for football, Greece had never made a significant impact on the football map, having qualified for a major international tournament only twice: the European Championship in 1980 and the World Cup in 1994. To make matters worse, they had not won a single game in either tournament and had scored only a single goal in six appearances. It did not look like that awful record was going to change anytime soon, but a match in the autumn of 2001 proved to be the start of something special.

On October 6, 2001, Greeks faced England at Old Trafford for their final World Cup qualifying match. With only six points and second to last place in the group, the team was already out of the running for qualification. The game was much more than a “dead rubber” match from Greece’s point of view; a two-all draw with the Three Lions at a sold-out Old Trafford was the start of an incredible journey to Euro 2004 glory. After taking a 2-1 lead, Greece did an impeccable job of maintaining a solid defensive shape and shutting down any danger that England posed. It took David Beckham to score one of the greatest free-kick goals of his career to break down the resilience of this Greek side, who were already showing signs of what was to come in the future.

The performance of the Greece national team during the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign was almost as bad as it could get. Consequently, the head coach Vasilis Daniil was sacked two qualifying games before the end. His replacement was the highly renowned German coach Otto Rehhagel, who was nothing but a true representative of German football culture. Known for his tactical intelligence and strictly disciplined training methods, Rehhagel had a perfect idea of how to turn a team with limited talent into something that could still win games with his rigid and disciplined style of play.

Otto Rehhagel was the main man behind Greece’s historic triumph at Euro 2004

Although Rehhagel’s tactics were incredibly pragmatic and lacked any flair, it all makes sense when you look at the squad Greece had assembled before the tournament. There is no shame in saying that the 2004 Greece team were one of the least talented squads in terms of individual ability, with Latvia perhaps the only other team a step behind them in the pecking order. The Greece Euro 2004 team was mainly composed of players from the three major Greek clubs: Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens.

The tactical formation proposed by Rehhagel was essentially a 4-3-3, a tactic often associated with teams that like to play attacking football with flair and create lots of scoring chances, while Greece’s 4-3-3 was nowhere near that. Kostas Katsouranis was the deepest of the three midfielders and played in a destroyer role, while Angelos Basinas and Theodoras Zagorakis made up the rest of the midfield, but both were far from being the creative midfielders one might imagine. Angelos Charisteas and Giorgios Karagounis were originally the wide players, with the latter often drifting into midfield, while the left-back Panagiotis Fyssas would make overlapping runs from time to time.

In possession, the Greece offense mainly focused on the transitional play. They tried to set up quick counter-attacks by applying pressure on both wings, and play crosses into the penalty area that resulted in strong headers. Out of possession, Rehhagel’s instructions were mostly clear and simple: Use strict and rigid man-to-man marking defense to track each opposing player as closely as possible, trying to block their runs and eventually mark them out of the game.

Nonetheless, Greece’s start to the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign suggested that the impressive two-all draw at Old Trafford against England may had been just a rare glimmer of hope that quickly faded. Greece lost their first two games against Spain and Ukraine, failing to score on either occasion. However, after an uninspiring start, Rehhagel’s rigid playing methods began to bear fruit and Greece went on a six-game winning streak without conceding a single goal. They finished top of their group in qualifying, leaving the likes of Spain having to wait until the play-offs to secure their ticket to the European Championship.

Basinas scores from the spot to give Greece a 2-0 lead against Portugal in the opening game of the tournament

Although Greece showed excellent form in qualifying, they were under no illusion of achieving the impossible when the Euro 2004 draw was made. They were drawn into a very tough group along with hosts Portugal, Spain and Russia. Greece went into their opening game against Portugal as clear underdogs, as the hosts had some serious fire power in their ranks. Portugal were better in every single way, but a great collective spirit, a hard work mentality and a rigid yet efficient style of play both offensively and defensively proved to be the recipe for success on the day. Greece scored twice thanks to a Karagounis goal and a converted Basinas penalty to spring one of the tournament’s biggest surprises right from the start.

The game against Portugal was followed by another big surprise after Greece drew 1-1 with Spain, one of the tournament favorites, in their second group game. It looked like the Greece fairy tale would continue, but the final group game against Russia brought them back to reality. Rehhagel’s men suffered a 2-1 defeat to Russia and were on the brink of elimination despite collecting four points from their first two games. A draw in the other game between Spain and Portugal would have sent the early tournament sensation home; however, luck was on Greece’s side on the day, as the hosts secured a much-needed win over their neighbors to make them the eventual group winners, while Greece finished second in the group.

While advancing to the Quarter-Finals was cause for celebration, that joy was quickly dampened when it became clear who they would face next: reigning European champions France. However, what followed was nothing short of a huge statement. The game plan was more or less just to take Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry out of the game, and Greece did that in brilliant fashion. Les Bleus failed to make a breakthrough throughout the entire 90 minutes. A goal from Angelos Charisteas in the 65th minute of the game gave Greece their second biggest win of the tournament, and from that moment on they really started to believe that the miracle could actually happen.

Charisteas’ header sends Greece through to the European Championship Semi-Finals

Although lesser known in world football, the Czech Republic were Greece’s opponents in the Semi-Finals, considered the best team in the tournament up to that point. The Czechs, who had defeated both the Netherlands and Germany to finish first in their group with nine points, were considered favorites for the match despite the incredible antics of the Greeks so far in the tournament. Greece stayed true to their playing philosophy and made it incredibly difficult for the Czech Republic to break them down, ending the game at 0-0 after full time.

Euro 2004 was the first tournament to use the controversial “silver goal” rule, which states that a team leading at half-time in extra time is declared the winner. That rule came into play in this Semi-Final when Traianos Dellas scored the winning goal in the 105th minute, giving the Czechs no time to get back into the game. Consequently, Greece had caused another major upset and were in the final of the European Championship.

Despite the incredible achievement of reaching the Final, Greece had done little to win the hearts of football experts and fans up to this point. Rehhagel’s side were accused of a heavily negative and dull style of play and were even described as “the only underdogs in the history of football who everyone wanted to see get beaten.”

Charisteas sends the whole of Greece into ecstasy as he heads the ball home to win the European Championship

Portugal were given the opportunity to avenge their opening defeat in the tournament, which turned out to be a historic moment in a major football tournament as the same two teams met in the first and the last game of the competition. Despite an unconvincing start to the tournament, the host nation had redeemed themselves with wins over Russia, Spain, England and the Netherlands on their way to the Final.

Regardless of Greece’s incredible journey, Portugal were still huge favorites to win. However, Greece and Charisteas proved for the last time in the tournament that anything is possible when the Werder Bremen forward scored the winning goal in the 57th minute of the game. Portugal were shocked for the second time in the tournament by the same team that had managed to defy the 80-1 odds and complete the greatest underdog story in football history.

The relentless determination of the players and the tactical masterclass of Rehhagel resulted in Greece pulling off arguably the biggest surprise in football history.

Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:

1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts
1972, Dream Debut for West Germany
1976, The Year of The Panenka
1980, The Belgium Challenge
1984, Platini’s Edition to Remember
1988, Van Basten and the Dutch Conquest
1992, The Denmark Fairy Tale
1996, Penalty Shootouts and Golden Goals
2000, France Shock Italy to Make History