Underdog Stories: Greece

2004 was THE year of the underdogs. May it be FC Porto defeating AS Monaco in the Champions League final, held in Gelsenkirchen- putting Jose Mourinho at the top of the world or minnows like Latvia qualifying for their first ever international tournament or 2 Nordic countries fighting for a place in the semi final of Euro. But the biggest of the upsets came in the same tournament- in the form of the undying spirit of their ancestors, the Greeks ‘spartan kicking’ the hosts Portugal in the finals of Euro 2004, right in front of Portuguese fans. From Nelly Furtado performing for a 55,000 strong audience in Porto to a 18 year old Wayne Rooney carrying the mighty English on his own, Euro 2004 was one of the most memorable tournaments of all time.

 

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This Euro campaign defied all odds. The juggernaut of Germans, the technical suave of Spain and the tactical jargon of Italy had to pack their bags right after Group Stage. The defending champions- France were humbled by the Greeks, blessed by the Gods of Olympus. Sweden and Denmark fought for a place in the semi-finals. No one even had Greece as their pick for even ‘dark horses’ and yet they went on to shock the entire continent and in turn the world with what was their just 3rd ever appearance at an international tournament. Even the hosts, Portugal were ranked outsiders but their all-round display and backing from the ‘12th man’ saw them overcome the mighty English and the firm believers of Totaal Voetbal- Netherlands to book a place in the final, right in their own backyard. Their opponents? Their Group A opponents Greece, who defeated them in the opener of the tournament.

Before this nerve-wracking final kick offs, we will take a look at how this odd defying tournament even came to fruition. Portugal won the bid to host The Euro in 1999, seeing off the competition from Spain and a joint bid from Austria and Hungary. This was the best possible opportunity for the Portuguese to showcase their talent on a big stage, the result of a massive investment made at Grassroot level in late 1980s and 1990s, not only on up and coming players but on up and coming coaches as well. Luis Figo was at the heart of this Portuguese team and also at the top of the world. This tournament also became the unveiling of a lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to even replicate the success of Luis Figo and even Eusebio. 

 

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The qualification path saw 50 teams fight to get one of those 16 places in the finals of the tournament. Greece shared the qualification group with Spain. This is the first time they shocked the footballing world when they topped their qualification group and sealed an automatic qualification spot, sending Spain to a playoff spot. In the other group, Czechia secured an automatic spot in the tournament with a near perfect qualification record and sent Netherlands into the playoffs. Iceland won plaudits when they held Germany to two 0-0 draws and were 1 point away from making history (which they eventually made 12 years later). Group 8 saw the closest fight in terms of qualification. Bulgaria against all odds topped their group and sealed a spot in Group stage, their 2nd ever qualification for Euro. Croatia and Belgium were tied on points but a superior goal difference saw the Croats advance to the play off stage and send Belgium home.

Perhaps, the biggest upset of the qualification stage and playoffs was Latvia exceeding expectations, overcoming the challenge of Poland to finish 2nd in their qualification group and then defeating Turkey 3-2 on aggregate in playoff rounds. Turkey went from a career high WC 2002 campaign to missing out on a Euro berth in just 2 years. Maris Verpakovskis’ 6 strikes in the qualification campaign sealed his place in the country’s football hall of fame which resulted in Latvia’s qualification for an international tournament. 

With the fate of 16 teams locked in, the real excitement of the main tournament was about to begin. More upsets were lined up. May it be Czechia’s perfect group stage record which sent Germany back home and Milan Baros exploding on the main stage, who was just whiskers away from missing the tournament due to a serious ankle injury suffered while playing for Liverpool FC. Or the ‘match-fixing’ allegations the Italians put on the Swedes and Danes which resulted in their elimination (quite ironic for Italian federation to lodge an official complaint of match fixing when the groundwork of the Calciopoli scandal was being laid at the same time back home- right behind their backs in their own organization). The last match of this group saw Sweden and Denmark face off each other and the fate of Italian qualification also laid on this result. A 2-2 draw between the Nordic countries could send the Italians back home and any other result meant that Italy will continue their journey. The odds of this result happening were the least. And what happened? A dramatic 2-2 draw which sent Sweden and Denmark into quarter finals and Italy was eliminated. But Greece was the shining light of this group stage even though their game play wasn’t as shiny as their results. Humbling Portugal and Spain in a space of 1 week isn’t just luck.

“Nobody thought before the tournament that we would win the trophy, the only thought we had was to be competitive in our games and make our people proud of our country,” explains Dimitris Papadopoulos, another member of the Euro 2004 squad and a former Burnley striker. This was a very good squad, full of very talented, gifted footballers. It was the best mix of players and a great manager in Otto Rehhagel who was renowned for his risk-free, winning approach and had already claimed three Bundesliga titles (one with Kaiserslautern which itself is considered one of the biggest upsets in German football history) before taking the Greece job. It was the Greek spirit married with German discipline. 

 

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The Greeks then faced a mighty encounter in the quarterfinals when they met the defending champions France. It was an all-time squad of sorts that needed no introduction- boasting the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zindane. Les Bleus weren’t at their best in the Group stage. They had to grasp their quarter final berth by scoring some late goals against England and Croatia. Also, there was some fragility in their armour. Marcel Desailly was past his peak. At 35, his performances weren’t up to the mark and their backups in Mikael Silvestre and William Gallas struggled without Desailly’s experience on the pitch.  

Despite the starpower and previous success in the group stage, France was held scoreless and fell 1-0 to the underdogs – who had a squad made up of players playing in Greece only with few players plying trade outside of Greece at club level. Greeks made a record of beating the hosts and defending champions for the first time in the history of Euro.  Greek football was not used to experiencing such success, either with its clubs or its national team. It was a big surprise, even to the Greek people that they reached the finals of Euro and now humbled some big footballing powerhouses and are now 90 minutes away from a historic final. Their opposition? The actual dark horse of every critic – Czechia. A brace from Milan Baros was more than enough to seal a place in semi finals and another historic final was beckoning for the Golden Generation of Czechia. 

 

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Meanwhile, on the other side, Portugal reached the semi-finals after eliminating the English on penalties and Netherlands also won against Sweden on penalties – their first ever victory on penalties in International Tournaments. 

The first semi-final was between the 2 superpowers – Portugal looking to win it’s first ever international trophy and it was at the best possible time- at their home, in their own backyard. That lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to be the best ever? He opened the scoring and a wonderful strike from the prince of stepovers – Maniche sent Portugal to a historic final and the dreams of conquering Euros was just 90 minutes away- that too in your own backyard. In the 2nd semi-final, the favourites to reach the final – Czechia had to lock horns with the Greeks. A barrage of attacks from the Czechs couldn’t breach the Greek defense, blessed by Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. They carried the wrath of Poseidon, the calm and intelligence of Athena, the will of Hercules, the lightning strike of Zeus and mean demeanor of Ares. And just like Zeus’ lightning, they struck a Silver Goal to seal a place in the final. Traianos Dellas’ strike was the first and last ever Silver Goal in football’s history. 

 

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This finale was even more sweet for Portugal who could make history and even exact their revenge on the Greeks for their opening day defeat. But fate had other plans. A fully loaded Portuguese arsenal came all guns blazing on Greek defense but they kept their cool and relied on counter attacks and set pieces to trouble their opposition. Right at the hour mark, a corner kick was awarded to Greece and what happened 30 seconds later will be forever etched in the history of Greek football.  Angelos Charisteas struck a header, right through the Portuguese defence and gave a 1-0 lead to the minnows. Angelos’ header was like the arrow which took the life of Darius the Great at the Battle of Marathon, a strike which took down a strong Armada and resulted in the victory of unified Greece, not just Athens or Sparta or Thebes or Korinthia. 

 

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This was the same unified Greece, fighting a battle against the superpowers of football and with the blessing of its people and Gods, this war finally won on 4th July 2004. After 2 millenia, Greece was once again the center of the world. When the team came to collect the medals, it was as if the victors of the war had come to take what was left of the sweet victory at the Pantheon. Meanwhile at home, streets were filled with joy and emotion. The nation was again roaring, the Aegean was roaring. This roar was so loud that even the Hydra must have been afraid to come out. Such was the impact of this Greek team on the country who is home to one of the most passionate supporters in the world. Greece had the odds of 80 to 1 of reaching the final at the start of the tournament. Not only they defied these substantial odds, they defied every known statistic and probability known to mankind and conquered Europe- something their ancestorrs will always be proud of.

Had Herodotus been alive in this generation, this victory must have been his favourite among all of known Greek History. Who knows if he really is alive and narrating this piece of history to someone on this Earth?

 

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