“Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks” – those are the words of Winston Churchill and few things live up to that quote more than the performance of Greece at UEFA Euro 2004. But let’s rewind a bit. Because solely highlighting that tournament without context, despite how sensational it is, doesn’t do the Greeks justice. One must understand the context and sheer magnitude of their performance in its entirety. This article will tell Greece’s full journey to their Euro 2004 title.
Greece’s Full Journey to The Euro 2004 Title
UEFA Euro 1980 Qualification
Greece’s maiden appearance at the European Championships was as early as 1980, earlier than most nations, in fact. At the time, it was only an eight-team tournament and it was quite an unlikely appearance, as they had lost their two opening games in qualifiers. 3-0 against Finland and 2-0 against the Soviet Union. Both were away games. Yet Greece proved to be a dominant home team, thrashing Finland 8-1 and Hungary 4-1.
Followed by a 0-0 draw away against Hungary and a 1-0 home win against the Soviet Union which saw Greece qualify for UEFA Euro 1980. Interestingly enough, Greece changed its national flag before their qualifying match away against Hungary. Getting rid of their beautiful ‘Nordic’ cross and replacing it with the flag they have to this day.
European Championship and World Cup Debut
Their group contained reigning European champions Czechoslovakia, reigning European runners-up West Germany, and reigning World Cup runners-up the Netherlands. A true group of death if there ever was one. Greece performed well in the group, given how incredibly competitive it was. But in such a group, even a remarkable performance resulted in a fourth-place finish and only one obtained point. Losing 1-0 against the Netherlands, 3-1 against Czechoslovakia, and holding West Germany to a 0-0 draw.
Greece’s next major tournament appearance was at the 1994 FIFA World Cup – a tournament they came to after going undefeated in qualification. So they came to the tournament with high hopes. But these hopes crashed down faster than the Greek economy following the 2008 recession. Losing every game without scoring a single goal.
UEFA Euro 2004 Qualification and Group Stage
In qualification for Euro 2004, Greece lost their first two games, just like in 1980. After that, something clicked. They won their remaining six games without conceding a single goal. After two failed attempts at major tournaments, Greece’s next try proved to be third time lucky, only figuratively speaking, of course, because it was not the result of luck. Rather superb tactics by manager Otto Rehhagel and team cohesion and commitment.
Their opening game was against Portugal’s golden generation – who also happened to be hosts. It was the best Portugal side since the 1966 FIFA World Cup where they finished third. Greece would have to be brave, and brave they were. More specifically, Giorgos Karagounis. As he opened the scoring in the 7th minute with a remarkable long-range effort. Angelos Basinas penalty in the 51st minute doubled their lead and heroic defending made sure Cristiano Ronaldo’s 93rd-minute goal just served as consolation for Portugal. Greece won 2-1.
Spain was their next opponent. It was a difficult game, but Greece earned a well-deserved point. Russia, the supposed ‘weakest’ team of the group, defeated Greece 2-1 in their final group game, yet Greece advanced to the quarter-finals nonetheless – on goals scored. Reigning European champions France awaited Greece in the quarter-finals.
Victories Against France and the Czech Republic
It was a courageous performance by the Greeks, with heroic defending. Angelo Charisteas eventually found the back of the net and Greece were victorious by a goal to nil – another sensational win for them and at this point, they had proven anything was possible.
The best team of the tournament up until that point, the Czech Republic, were their semi-final opponents. The Czechs, who had defeated the Netherlands and Germany among others, were the favorites, despite Greece also causing major upsets. It was an end-to-end game that could have gone either way but was deadlocked at 0-0 after full time. Euro 2004 was the first tournament the controversial ‘silver goal’ rule was used in, meaning if a team leads at the half-time break of extra time, they would be declared winners. It came into play in this game, as Traianos Dellas scored the winning header in the 105th minute which sealed Greece’s place in the final.
Final Against Hosts Portugal
Portugal would get the opportunity to get revenge for their group stage defeat. Despite their shaky start to the tournament, the hosts had redeemed themselves, defeating Russia, Spain, England, and the Netherlands on their route to the final.
Regardless of what Greece had proven, Portugal were favorites. But Angelo Charisteas and Greece defied the 80-1 odds by scoring the winning goal in the 57th minute. A stunning 1-0 scoreline that would not have stood had it not been for defending that defies description. Greece, against all expectations, had won their first and only major international trophy.
It is an inspirational story. Greece’s Euro 2004 title proved every country has a chance.