How Greece stunned the world to crash Euro 2004 party for hosts Portugal and ‘golden generation’

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Underdogs Greece famously celebrated victory at Euro 2004, in what remains one of the great shocks of international football history

In ancient Greek mythology it is often claimed that Zeus was the god of thunder, lighting, rain and wind, and his traditional weapon, the thunderbolt, had the ability to stun and shake up the world.

Similarly, Zeus is also famous for leading the Gods to victory against the giants - and that’s exactly what Otto Rehhagel’s Greece were able to do when they lifted the European Championships for the first and so far only time in their history back in 2004.

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The victory remains one of the greatest shocks in the history of international football and there will be plenty of teams dreaming of achieving the feat at this summer’s European Championships in Germany.

Here we take a look at how a Greece team that had never previously won a game in tournament football managed to go all the way in Euro 2004 - whilst crushing various footballing giants along the way.

Otto Rehhagel’s appointment as manager

Greece’s unlikely rise to European glory actually began to manifest itself in a match which saw one of the most iconic goals in England’s recent history - David Beckham’s free kick against them in October 2001.

The game itself was meaningless for Greece, who had unsurprisingly failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002. For context, The Blue and Whites had only ever competed at two major tournaments in their history; the 1980 Euros and the 1994 World Cup. Across those two tournaments they lost five games, drew once and scored just one goal. Simply put, many fans thought it would be an eternity before they would even see tournament football again.

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The dismissal of Vasillis Daniil and the arrival of three-time Bundesliga winner Otto Rehhagel was a statement of intent by the national team in August 2001 - but a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Finland in his first game in charge summed up the seismic challenge that was in front of him.

The aforementioned qualifier against England represented a change of psyche in the nation and summarised the new way that the team would set up against the big boys in just Rehhagel’s second game in the dugout.

The game finished 2-2 and a stubborn defence was able to contain much of England’s firepower for large periods of the game, before a masterful free kick from captain Beckham made the difference.

Euro 2004 qualification

Few knew it at the time, but Greece were onto something when they entered the Euro 2004 qualification rounds. Their campaign began in difficult circumstances with 2-0 defeats to both Spain and Ukraine. 

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But they responded excellently to top the group in fine fashion - winning six games in a row in which they beat a Spain team featuring Raul and a Ukraine team containing eventual 2004 Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko. They also recorded back-to-back wins over Armenia and Northern Ireland.

How Greece won Euro 2004

Despite an impressive run of form in qualification, Greece were huge outsiders to progress from the group as they were paired with Spain, Russia and tournament hosts Portugal. Heading into the tournament Greece were 150/1 to go all the way - surely a waste of money?

Greece faced Portugal in their opening game, who, like England, were experiencing something of a golden generation at the time. The likes of Deco and Ricardo Carvalho were fresh from their Champions League victory with Porto, while the squad also boasted one of the world’s best players in Luis Figo and a fresh faced Cristiano Ronaldo, who was just beginning to burst on the scene at Manchester United.

But Greece didn’t read the script and produced a 2-1 victory in Porto to earn their first ever tournament win. They followed that up with a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Spain. 

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However, their journey was not all plain-sailing and Rehhagel’s men only scraped into the knockout stages after a 2-1 loss to Russia - a late first half strike by Zisis Vryzas secured Greece’s status in the quarter-finals by the finest of margins, goals scored. 

The knockout stages

By the quarter-finals, Greece were viewed as the surprise package of the tournament and many were quick to praise the tactical pedigree of Rehaggel, who had made his team tough to beat in a disciplined system, reliant on man-marking, with a hint of zonal marking.

The team primarily played in a 433 system, which quickly changed to a 451 system when out of possession. Their strategy was reliant on work rate and exuberance to restrict the level of space for the opposition to make runs. The team crucially operated with a sweeper as their last line of defence and the role was typically assigned to one of the team’s heroes of the tournament Trianos Dellas.

Greece were by no means the prettiest team to watch on the ball and their offensive game was primarily reliant on long balls, with the wingers often playing in a narrow way to support Vryzas in aerial duels.

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Greece had become a difficult team to face, but very few felt they could deal with the might of reigning champions France - a side that boasted a trio of Arsenal invincibles in Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, along with Zinedine Zidane and the golden goal scorer from the Euro 2000 final, David Trezeguet.

However, the quarter-final match proved to be something worthy of its own place in Greek mythology as a stubborn defence denied a wealth of French talent, before hitting them with a seismic shock in a 1-0 win as Angelos Charisteas scored a powerful second half header to send the team to the last four.

While perhaps not yet regarded at the same heights as France and Portugal - few were surprised to see Greece’s counterparts Czech Republic reach the last four. Their squad had all the makings of being dark horses, with tournament top scorer Milan Baros leading the line, Peter Cech in goal, plus Tomas Rosicky and 2003 Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedved pulling the strings - they were regarded as a force to be reckoned with.

The game proved to be a tight-fought affair, which changed once Nedved was forced off with a first half injury. Greece prevailed with a 1-0 win in extra time. The header for Dellas was a rare example of the short-lived silver goal system, which essentially meant that a team leading after the first 15 minutes of extra time would automatically win the game - rather than playing the additional half.

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Many great stories have a habit of starting and ending in a similar fashion, and this was certainly the case with the Euro 2004 final as Greece faced off once again with tournament hosts and huge favourites Portugal.

The final was staged in the nation's capital city, Lisbon and the hosts were led into the final by a serial winner in Luis Felipe Scolari, who had only recently managed Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002.

The first half was a tight fought affair and although Portugal were often the aggressor, neither side was really able to fashion a clear cut goal scoring opportunity. The picture changed dramatically in the second half when Greece opened the scoring from a corner with Angelos Charisteas firing in a 57th minute header. 

The corner demonstrated Greece’s ruthless ability from set plays and was described as a carbon copy of the headed winners against both France and Czech Republic by BBC Sport's John May.

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Greece faced an onslaught of Portugal attacks in the final half an hour with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Maniche all missing key chances, but Greece held on to win the Euros at odds of 150/1.

In many ways this would prove to be the Leicester City moment of the European Championships. Greece would ironically fail to qualify for the World Cup just two years on and they are on a 10-year streak without even qualifying for a major tournament. Portugal had to wait another 12 years for their European Championship triumph with Ronaldo and Carvalho being the only remaining members of the class of 04.

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