How Greece achieved the impossible at EURO 2004
The summer of 2004 was a tremendous period for Greek sports. Weeks before pompous Olympics games, they triumphed on the European scene, the national football team won the 2004 UEFA European Championships by beating in final, the hosts, Portugal 2-1. History will remember the triumph, not the manner.
An old German strategist
Ottto Rehhagel arrived in Greece with the clear objective to rescue a bloodless national team, what remained of it, anyway. Before his arrival, a triple failure in qualifying for the Euro ’96, the World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000. The winner of the UEFA Cup in 1996 at the helm of Bayern Munich, had a modest career but during this time he revealed his talents as an outstanding tactician by brilliantly adapting his game system to that of opponents supposedly superior. Above all, he manages a project of play with, at first glance, little coaching: give priority to a solid block defence, before thinking to lead with attacks based mainly on the athletic game of his strikers.
The team: Antonios Nikopolodis as ‘keeper, a poor-technical but solid defence composed of: Yourkas Seitaridis, Michalis Kapsis, Traianos Dellas and Panayotis Fysas and Angelo Basinas and Theodoros Zagorakis, as defensive midfielders. Giorgos Karagounis, Kostas Katsouranis, Zisis Vryzas and Angelos Charisteas were found further forward.
The group stages
The first round for Greece was marked by an inaugural victory against the host country (2-1) which immediately set the scene. Karagounis scored the first goal of the tournament and Basinas the second, from a penalty. The Spaniards were held in the nation’s second fixture (1-1) and then they lost against Russia (1-2). After the group stages, they adjusted their block and then they didn’t concede any more.
The quarter-final: vs France
Qualifying for the quarter-finals at the expense of Spain in favour of a better attack (four goals scored against the two of the Spanish side). Greece won the right to challenge France, not dissatisfied with the idea of facing a little training accustomed to international games. France had just won the Confederations Cup 2003, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord were the hardcore of Arsenal Invincible team 2003-2004, Zinedine Zidane was the number ten, and the coach Roger Lemerre had various solid defenders of the likes of Michael Sylvestre (Manchester United), William Gallas (Lyon) and Bicente Lizzarazu, who was still at Bayern.
Between the sticks he could count on the veteran Fabien Barthez or the young shot-stopper Gregory Coupet (Lyon). Against the holders of the title, Rehhagel had a plan: to evolve with the stoppers to padlock the duo of attack of the Bleus composed of Thierry Henry who later, will lead Arsenal to a Champions Leauge final in 2006 and David Trezeguet. The tactic was paying off: dumb during the whole match, the two former Monegasques collide helplessly against the wall. The Greek national team took advantage of their lack of realism to register the only goal of the game, a header from Charisteas shortly after an hour of play. Then Greece played deeper than ever for the rest of the 35 minutes and the additional time.
The semi-final: vs Czech Republic
Delighted by the turn he has just played in France, the German strategist kept the same shape in the semi-final against the Czech Republic led by Pavel Nedved, his 5-3-2, a scalable in 3-5-2 in the opposite half. Here again, Pavel Nedved’s partners had no solution to such a large concentration of Greek players in the pitch. The Czech squad was impressive with the likes of Peter Cech as goalkeeper, Marek Jankulovski as left-back, Karel Poborski, Pavel Nedved, Thomas Rosicky in the midfield, and the duo Milan Baros and the giant Jan Kohler up-front. Appraisal: a forceps victory for Greece thanks to a silver goal scored in the 105th minute in the extra-time by another giant Tainos Dellas (1,96m) – he didn’t need to jump.
Final: vs Portugal
On 4 July 2004, at Estadio La Luz in Lisbon, Otto Rehhagel surprises his world by opting for a system with four defenders in a 4-4-2 formation. Zisis Vryzas and Charisteas played as strikers. For the rest, the course of the match is an almost identical copy of the quarter-final against France with the new heroic head of Charisteas after around the hour of play securing victory. The Hellenic defensive block was like a single man reducing to nothing the hopes the Portuguese to win in front of their public the first title of their history. The tactical trap set by Greece during this Euro 2004 was perfect and still remains today a case study often analysed in the training cycle of professional coaches.
The days after
Despite this strong competition, there’s no Greek of this golden generation that succeeded at European top clubs, not even their best elements, let’s take a look:
Nikopolodis, the official George Clooney look-alike, took off his gloves in 2011. Less emotional than Rustu, but very strong on the line, he had conceded only four goals in the six games played at Euro 2004. Logic that he appears in the standard team of the best players of the competition. Champion of Greece the same year with Panathinaikos, he then signs for the other great club of Athens. At Olympiakos, he will dominate the Greek Division 1 from 2005 to 2009. A hegemony worthy of antiquity.
The best player
Awarded as the best player of the final, this anonymous midfielder. The skipper, Theodoros Zagorakis signed for Bologna, he played only once, and the club had been relegated. He is also the record appearance-holder of the Greece national team with 120 caps.
The target man
Angelos Charisteas had a beautiful year, he won in the same year the double Bundesliga-DFB Pokal. The Great striker (1,91m) not often a starter, played in Netherlands (Ajax, Feyenoord) and in Germany (Nuremberg, Leverkusen, Schalke 04).
King Otto (a nickname used in the Greek journals) walked his sceptre in Greece from 2001 to 2010. Busier not conceding goals than scoring them, he was in 2004 the oldest coach to win the EUROs. At 65 years old. Record beaten since by Aragaones four years later. An Athenian honourary citizen, for Germany 2006, his team couldn’t qualify. His Greece had been eliminated in the first round in the Switzerland-Austria 2008. Even though he registered the first victory of the country in a World Cup history during the World Cup 2010 in South Africa he had been eliminated. In February 2012, he went back to his homeland, he returned to business at Hertha Berlin. The experiment lasted only three months. It ended with the relegation of the club to D2 and a non-extended contract.
The Euro champions looked unbeatable at this moment, their resilience and fortitude exemplary to any aspiring title winners. Greece’s tactical approach worked, they didn’t fail to score – usually, the strict minimum, Nikopolodis and his back five (except the final when he had a back four) were always present at the right moment in the closing periods. Evidently, the future opponents for Greece have learned from their successes and mistake in this tournament, that’s why this tactical approach didn’t work at any tournament they participated in after 2004.