Greece 2004: The spoilsports who conquered a continent

From Spain in 2008 to Denmark in 1992, we look back at some of the most memorable teams to grace the European Championships

Greece 2004: The spoilsports who conquered a continent

Picture by: ARMANDO FRANCA / AP/Press Association Images

To put Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph into context, you first need to look at their record in previous international competitions.

The team had only previously qualified for the European Championships in 1980, and then a World Cup 14 years later. In their six games at both tournaments, they failed to win a single one, losing all three games at USA '94.

Panionios striker Nikos Anastopoulos was the only player who has scored for the team in a major tournament as he equalised against Czechoslovakia in their Group A clash in Rome in 1980.

The 2004 vintage went into the tournament in Portugal as 150/1 outsiders. Led by German manager Otto Rehhagel, they looked unlikely to even qualify for the tournament after losing their first two matches in trying to get to finals on the Iberian Peninsula.

After suffering consecutive 2-0 losses at home to Spain and away to Ukraine in Kiev, Greece lay well behind both sides in the reckoning. The more complicated route through the play-offs looked like their best opportunity to qualify for their first major tournament in a decade.

The Greek team that started the Euro 2004 Final. Back row from left: Traianos Dellas, Angelos Charisteas, Panagiotis Fyssas, Konstantinos Katsouranis, Mihalis Kapsis and Antonis Nikopolidis. Front row from left: Stylianos Giannakopoulos, Zisis Vryzas, Georgios Seitaridis, Angelo Basinas and Theodoros Zagorakis.  (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

In a group that also included Armenia and Northern Ireland, Rehhagel’s side won their following six games to top the group and book their flights to Portugal. In what would be a taste of things to come at Euro 2004, Greece won their final four games 1-0.

That run of wins included defeating Spain in Zaragoza and Ukraine in Athens. Stelios Giannakopoulos, who had joined Bolton Wanderers weeks previously and Angelos Charisteas scored the winning goals in the respective games.

Ranked as the 15th best of the 16 teams (only Latvia were lower) in the UEFA cofficient, Greece were drawn into Group A with hosts Portugal, along with Spain and Russia, with few giving them any chance of making it out of that alive.

Rehhagel’s side play six friendlies between qualifying and their opening game against the hosts. They would lose two of their final three warm-up games. A 2-0 win away to Liechtenstein was the final step on the path to Euro 2004, as they packed their bags with a boost of confidence.

In what would be a precursor for the famous final, Greece met Portugal in the opening match in Porto and spoiled the host’s party. Euro 2004 was seen as the chance for Portugal’s golden generation to thrive, but they looked as though they had now fallen short at the first hurdle.

Greece were deserved 2-1 winners in their opening game as they played a brand of counter-attacking football that caught Portugal cold. Goals either side of half-time from Giorgios Karagounis and Angelos Basinas ruined the hosts' big day before Cristiano Ronaldo scored a late consolation in added-time.

Greece players celebrate in front of their fans after victory over Portugal in their opening group game. Picture by: Tony Marshall / EMPICS Sport

From entering the tournament hoping to win just once and be proud of their performances, Greece had already accomplished their goal. It was time for a new one. "That win released us," Takis Fyssas told ESPN ahead of Euro 2016.

After being underdogs in their opening match against a Partisan crowd, Greece found themselves in the same position four days later as a win against Spain in Porto would book the team’s spot in the quarter-finals.

Just over an hour’s drive from the Spanish border, it was the 'local' side who took the lead in Porto, with a goal from Fernando Morientes in the first half. Just after the hour mark, Angelos Charisteas scored the equalising goal to prove once again that Greecer were not there to make up the numbers despite already getting that one famous win. It would finish 1-1, but Charisteas wasn't finished scoring important goals.

Four points from the opening two games, meant that Greece had an excellent chance of reaching the quarter-finals. All they had to do was beat Russia, who had lost their opening two games to book their spot in the knockout stages.

The game in Faro could not have started worse for Greece, however. Dmitri Kirichenko scored Russia’s first goal of the tournament inside as soon as the clock ticked over the one minute mark, and it remains the quickest goal in the history of the European Championships.

15 minutes later, Dmitri Bulykin doubled their lead, and as it stood, Greece were going to be eliminated with Spain and Portugal advancing to the quarter-finals with their game deadlocked at 0-0.

Enter Zisis Vryzas, who gave Greece a narrow sliver of hope just before half-time, as they went in trailing 2-1 at the break. If Vryzas gave them a lifeline, it was Nuno Gomes who applied the defibrillator to their flagging hopes. The Portugal striker scored in the second half of their game against Spain, sending Iñaki Sáez's side home after a 1-0 defeat.

Portugal won the group and Greece finished ahead of Spain in the table by virtue of goals scored. Both teams finished on four points, with a goal difference of zero, but Greece outscored Spain by four goals to two. They had reached the knockout stages.

France, the reigning champions, awaited Greece in the quarter-finals. Despite the embarrassment of failing to win a game in their World Cup defence of 2002, Jacques Santini’s side were doing far better defending their Euro 2000 title.

Victories over England and Switzerland saw the side top Group B and set up a Lisbon showdown against Greece. If the Greeks were underdogs against Portugal, they were practically non-runners against the French.

Greece's Angelos Charisteas scores the only goal of the game against France. Picture by: Matthew Ashton / EMPICS Sport

Despite studying Greek plays in school, Santini’s side were not prepared for the breadth of tactical versatility from their opponents. Rehhagel made three changes from the loss to Russia, but it was Charisteas once again who found the back of the net thanks to a cross down the right, a pattern that would repeat itself twice more in the next two games.

France had no answer for the 65th minute goal, despite the best efforts of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Louis Saha and Sylvain Wiltord. 

In the semi-finals, an excellent Czech Republic side stood in Greece’s way. With the eventual golden boot winner Milan Baros in the team, along with Jan Koller, Thomas Rosicky, Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky, the Czechs looked set to book their place against the hosts in the Final, despite the fact that so many other big names had already fallen against Rehhagel's team.

Similar to what they did against France, they nullified the Czech attacking threat and took the game to extra-time. Traianos Dellas, would enter the history books as the only player to score a “Silver Goal” in the European Championships. His header in additional time of the first half of extra-time was a virtual “Golden Goal”. Greece had booked their date with destiny, and a rematch against Portugal.

Despite reaching the Final, the Greek squad was ridden with tension throughout the tournament, and a clear-the-air meeting was required before the Final in the Estadio de Luz.

"We told each other that this was the only opportunity that we would get to write history", Vasilis Tsiartas admitted to ESPN. "We knew we would never be able to recreate what had happened. We vowed then to give everything to make sure we did not need to."

Greece's captain Theodoras Zagorakis celebrates winning the UEFA European Championship with teammates Nikos Dabizas (l) and Stelios Venetidis (r) Picture by: Tony Marshall / EMPICS Sport

Only 15,000 Greek fans got tickets to the game, while a formidable wall of 40,000 home fans were in attendance. It was an opportunity that neither team thought they may grasp again, and the pressure showed on both of them.

It was Charisteas who would become the face of the Greek triumph with a header just before the hour mark. That proved the difference and gave Greece their third 1-0 win in a row; more importantly, it also gave them sporting immortality.

The Greek triumph has been widely compared to Denmark’s win 12 years previously, and although both teams were massive underdogs, they also had different styles. Greek’s 2004 vintage could be described as effective and efficient. There was nothing flashy about them, and Rehhagel simply didn’t care.

Five Greek players were named in the 23-man UEFA Team of the Tournament, while captain Theodoros Zagorakis was named Player of the Tournament, highlighting that the team had made their mark on the footballing world.

It’s worth remembering that only eight of the Greek squad played their club game on foreign shores, and the foundations of the Greek win were built domestically.

While the team has failed to mount a challenge for any major tournament since 2004, they reached four consecutive international tournaments between Euro 2004 and the 2014 World Cup. Despite the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign disaster (and given there were some slightly more important things happening in the country at the time), four tournaments in a row for a team that had gone so long without qualifying is progress. 

They may, in some way, have been victims of their own success in that regard, but they had provided a drama for their fans that may well live as long as any of Sophocles' works.