Since the first European Championship tournament in 1960, the competition has produced some surprising winners such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Denmark. Although, the Danish team of the early ’90s was filled with some quality players.
Another unlikely Euros winner was Greece, who in 2004 were crowned champions of Europe after defeating the hosts Portugal in the final – something unexpected given how the tournament seemed to be Portugal’s to win.
So in my latest piece, I will be going over Greece’s journey throughout the 2004 European Championship and analyse how they were able to overcome the odds stacked against them and win their first international trophy in a major tournament.
Qualifying for Euro 2004
Greece was put into Group 6 of the qualifying stages of Euro 2004, consisting of Spain, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Armenia – a tough group for Greece to qualify from as Spain was seen as the favourite to top the group and qualify automatically.
Greece would find this out in their first qualifying match against the Spaniards in September 2002. Spain would win the match 2-0 in Athens thanks to goals from Raul and Valeron, not the best start for Otto Rehhagel and his Greek side.
Things wouldn’t get much better for them in their second qualifying game against Ukraine in Kyiv. Despite holding out to 0-0 going into halftime, Andriy Vorobey put the hosts in front just six minutes after the restart and after Greece chased the game looking for an equaliser, Andriy Voronin scored in the 90th minute to secure a 2-0 Ukrainian victory.
After back-to-back defeats in their opening two qualifying games, the Greek players had to dig deep if they were going to advance into Euro 2004. Fortunately, they would bet the breakthrough against Armenia in round three of qualifying.
Greece took the lead with just two minutes gone courtesy of Demis Nikolaidis, setting the tone early on in this vital game. Armenia couldn’t find a response and during the second half, Nikolaidis got his second of the game to round off a 2-0 win for Greece – finally getting off the mark and building momentum going into their fourth qualifying game against Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Rehhagel’s men made another blistering start to the game after Angelos Charisteas gave them the lead after just four minutes gone. Much like Armenia, Northern Ireland failed to get themselves on level terms as Charisteas scored his second of the match at the 55th-minute mark, giving his national side another 2-0 win as they climbed up their qualifying group towards the top two.
The next round of qualifying matches was a return fixture, this time to favourites Spain at the La Romareda in Zaragoza. Greece was determined not to let the events of the first game happen again as they put a defiant display to continuously deny the Spaniards from scoring.
Then, with just three minutes left to play in the first half, Stelios Giannakopoulos scored to give Greece an unexpected lead going into the break. This shocked the Spaniards as they tried desperately to look for an equaliser, but still, the Greeks remained defiant as they saw out the hosts to claim an amazing 1-0 victory in Spain.
They would be back in Athens as they took on Ukraine in the nest round of qualifying. It was a tight game with nothing much to separate the two sides, with Greece looking to top the group while Ukraine was looking for the play-off place.
With just four minutes left, Charisteas scored the winning goal as Greece won their fourth consecutive qualifying match and topped the group.
Their penultimate qualifying match would be an away fixture against Armenia in the Hanrapetakan Stadium in Yerevan. Greece would once again add to their winning streak as they beat the home side 1-0 through Zisis Vryzas’s goal, keeping them top of the group with 15 points to Spain’s 14 points going into the final round of qualifying.
Spain faced Armenia in Yerevan whilst Greece took on Northern Ireland in Athens. A greek win would make them group winners and qualify automatically for Euro 2004, whilst Spain needed to equal or better Greece’s result and hope that Northern Ireland could do them a favour.
The Greeks played their game first, knowing throughout the match that a win was all they needed to qualify automatically. However, Northern Ireland wasn’t an easy game for them as they look to hold off the Greeks for as long as they could.
But then in the second half, they were given a glorious chance after they were awarded a penalty with just over 20 minutes left to play. Vassilios Tsiartas stepped up to take the spot kick and bury it into the Northern Irish net, sending the Athens crowd into jubilation.
Despite the nervousness a 1-0 lead can bring, their steel determination got them through to the end as they won their final qualifying game – sending them through to Euro 2004 with a record of six straight wins and six clean sheets.
Spain on the other hand, although winning 4-0 against Armenia, had to settle for a playoff place if they wanted to qualify for the tournament.
Euro 2004: The group stages
After qualifying for the tournament, Greece was put into Group A which comprised of the hosts Portugal, Russia and Spain, who were in their qualification group. Spain was once again favourites to qualify into the knockout rounds along with hosts Portugal, and the Greeks were once again not the odds favourite.
Portugal opened the tournament with their match against Greece in Porto. The atmosphere was electric as the natives welcomed their countrymen onto the pitch, the Greeks knew they had to do what they could to silence the home crowd.
And that’s exactly what they did with just seven minutes gone, Giorgos Karagounis put his side in front to stun the Portuguese fans into shock. It wasn’t the ideal start for the hosts as they battled hard to get an equalising goal, but the Greeks held strong as they continued to thwart their efforts on goal.
Then, six minutes after the restart, it got even better for the Greeks as they were awarded a penalty, which was dispatched by Angelos Basinas to give his team an unexpected 2-0 lead. It was not what anyone was expecting, which would become a theme of their tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo got a 93rd-minute goal, but it proved to be nothing more than a constellation as Greece beat the hosts 2-1 in the opening game of Euro 2004.
Up next were their rivals from qualification Spain – once again the Spaniards were the favourites in this match and for a while, it looked as if the odds would be right.
Fernando Sanchez gave his team the lead with 28 minutes gone, with Greece not creating much in the way of chances but still hanging on in the game.
Their determination once again paid off as Spain couldn’t hold onto the lead. Angelos Charisteas, who scored three goals during qualifying, scored the equaliser after 66 minutes played.
Neither side could muster up a winner towards the end and the match finished 1-1 a piece, leaving Greece and Spain with four points, Portugal with three and Russia with zero.
Greece would play Russia while Portugal played Spain in the final matches of the group stages. Despite the strong defence Greece had, they would go 1-0 down courtesy of Dmitri Kirichenko’s goal and things weren’t going to get much better for them. Dmitri Bulykin put Russia 2-0 as Greece faced the possibility of being eliminated from the tournament.
Meanwhile, it remained 0-0 between Portugal and Spain and if the results stayed like this, Spain would advance into the knockout stages and Greece would be out of the Euros.
Zisis Vryzas got a goal back for the Greeks just before halftime, they continued to look for an equaliser but couldn’t find any luck at scoring past the Russians again.
But in the other group game, there would be a big twist that would change the dynamic of the group. Nuno Gomes put Portugal in front after 57 minutes gone and the hosts now topped their group.
As things stood Greece and Spain would be level on points and goal difference in 2nd place, but Greece would advance on goals scored with four goals compared with Spain’s three goals.
The Spaniards tried desperately to look for an equaliser while the Greeks did the same, but neither side could find one and the matches ended 2-1 for Portugal and Russia respectively. Meaning Greece would advance to the knockout stages and Spain, one of the favourites in the group, was eliminated from the tournament.
The Greek players yet again proved the odds wrong as they continued their European Championship journey.
The quarter-final: France
Greece would take on the reigning European Champions France in the quarter-finals of Euro 2004 in Lisbon. To say this was a tough match for the Greeks would be an understatement, the French squad contained quality players such as Robert Pires, Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira etc.
Once the match got underway, the Greeks once again showed their grit and determination to frustrate the French as Jacques Santini’s side looked to break down the stubborn and well-drilled Greek defence.
It ended up being an even affair going into halftime as Greece limited France to just a couple of decent chances on their goal. After the restart, Greece continued their determined approach and with 65 minutes gone, it would eventually pay off.
Giorgos Karagounis did brilliantly to flick the ball over French left-back Bixente Lizarazu and put in a dangerous cross for the striker Charisteas, who powered his header past Fabian Barthez and into the French goal.
This stunned the French players, who didn’t know how to break past the Greek wall protecting their goal. Despite the sheer around of quality on display in the France team, one of them could find a clear sight of the goal as they began to throw everything at the Greeks.
But time after time, the Greeks held firm as they saw out France to pick up a historic 1-0 win, knocking out the reigning champions and sending them through to the semi-finals of the European Championship – unbelievable scenes for the Greek fans in Lisbon.
The semi-finals: Czech Republic
Now down to the last four, Greece’s semi-final opponents would be the Czech Republic, who were having a great tournament themselves – but one fairytale had to come to an end.
The Czechs set the tone early on in the game when they struck the woodwork after just a few minutes gone, a warning to the Greeks.
Greece continued to be under the cosh, but their keeper Antonios Nikopolidis was up to the task, making good saves to keep his side in the semi-final.
Greece had a half chance when Petr Cech had to dive down to convert a cross away from danger, but other than that the Greeks didn’t create much as both sides headed for the tunnel at halftime.
In the second half, clear-cut chances were few and far between as both sides become dogged in their defence. Greece had a good opportunity when a free kick was whipped into the box but the header was straight at Cech.
Then, the Czechs had a brilliant chance to score when, after a brilliant one-two, Jan Koller found himself with plenty of space in the box with just the keeper to beat – but somehow he converted the shot wide, only he knew how he missed.
After 90 minutes, neither side could be separated, but instead of the usual extra time and penalties, the Silver Goal rule was in place so that if a team scored within the 15 minutes of extra time, they would win the match.
Both sides were showing signs of fatigue, but Greece had a great chance to score when the ball bounced in the box and Stelios Giannakopoulos headed the ball onto the on-rushing Cech, who got his arm to the ball and diverted the shot away from goal.
Greece had more chances to score and it looked like one team was going to win it. In the final minute of added time of extra time, that’s exactly what Greece did when Vasilios Tsiartas whipped in an in-swinging corner and defender Traianos Dellas headed from close range to win the game for Greece – sending send the Greek fans in Porto into pandemonium.
The Euro 2004 Final: Portugal
Just as it was at the start, the hosts Portugal would face Greece in the final of Euro 2004 in Lisbon. Once again, Greece were the underdogs despite beating the Portuguese in the group stages.
This was the last test of determination, grit and skills for the Greeks as they took on the favourites Portugal, with many believing they would win the tournament on home soil.
Portugal unsurprisingly dominated the early stages, having a couple of decent chances but nothing clear-cut as of yet. Greece got themselves into the game more and early had a chance when keeper Ricardo had to come rushing out to stop the Greek striker from reaching the ball.
Greece, like in every other game of the tournament, looked determined in their defending as they tried to snuff out the threat from Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Luis Figo. It was 0-0 heading into the break, with nothing to separate the sides yet.
Portugal came out in the second half with fresh incentive, but still, they couldn’t create a clear opening on goal. Then in the 57th minute, Greece would get their moment when Angelos Basinas whipped in an out-swinging corner which was met by Charisteas, who powered his header into the back of Ricardo’s net.
The Greek fans in the stadium didn’t know what to do with themselves as they saw their team take the lead in the final of Euro 2004. Queuing scene of cheer craziness from the Greek side of the ground.
Portugal tried themselves back in the game, with Ronaldo and Figo both testing the Greek keeper, but neither could find a way past.
Then, Ronaldo had a good chance to score when his excellent first touch from a hoofed ball put him just towards the left side of the box, but he couldn’t keep his effort down as the Greek no1 came out towards the Portuguese winger.
Ricardo Carvalho was next to test the Greek keeper as he came out of the defence to shoot from 25-30 yards out, producing a good save to keep the Portuguese at bay.
Luis Figo then had a great opportunity when he turned brilliantly away from two Greek players to create space and shoot, only to find his effort agonisingly wide of the goal.
That proved to be the lance chance for Portugal as the final whilst blew and the match need in a 1-0 scoreline. Greece had done it, after all the odds stacked against them from the beginning, they had proved all the doubters wrong with their spirit, fight and determination.
Some say it was boring to watch, but in all honestly, they weren’t going to win it in any other way. Getting out of a group that consisted of Portugal and Spain, eliminating the reigning champions France, using all their grit to get past the Czech Republic and beating Portugal again in their backyard to win the European Championships, It’s truly remarkable.
They also managed to win the tournament without conceding a goal in the knockout stages, a feat which the Greek defence and goalkeeper deserve huge credit for as they kept their team within games and withstood all amounts of pressure when it counted.
Who knows if a story like this would ever happen again, but stories like these are why we love international football and why we look forward to these tournaments every four years.