How 'boring' Greece stunned the world to win Euro 2004
Takis Fyssas's fiancée, Christina, was worried. They had set a date for their wedding: July 9, 2004. Everything was arranged. The ceremony would be held on the beach at Vouliagmeni, an ornate seaside town about 15 miles south of Athens. They had been living in Lisbon that year but wanted to get married at home, surrounded by 300 of their friends and family.
That summer's European Championships would only have finished a few days before the ceremony. The final was scheduled for July 4. Fyssas' teammates in the Greece squad for the tournament had been invited. What if they did not make it? More importantly, what if the groom didn't?
Fyssas, who started all but one match as a left-back, did all he could to reassure his bride-to-be there would not be a problem. There would be ample time for life to get back to normal before July 9. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll be home by the start of July. I can watch the semifinals and final with my friends, a few beers, a bit of pizza. And then we can have our own celebration. Everybody will be there."
As it turned out, Fyssas was wrong. He only made it back to Greece on July 5. He did not have time to watch the climax to the tournament on television -- because he was part of it -- nor did he have more than a week to prepare for his wedding. Takis and Christina would not be the only people in Greece celebrating that summer -- far from it. Instead, an entire nation took to the streets in disbelief and ecstasy. The rest of the world might have criticised Greece for being boring, unimaginative even, but nobody among the thousands who flocked to see their heroes arrive cared.
Greece had won the 2004 European Championships.
THE STORY OF THE most unlikely triumph in major tournament history begins in Manchester. In the autumn of 2001, Greece travelled to Old Trafford to face England in a World Cup qualifier. It's a game best remembered for David Beckham's Captain Marvel tribute act: the wonderful, swerving free kick that earned a 2-2 draw and sealed Sven-Goran Eriksson's side a place at the 2002 World Cup.
England duly crashed out in the quarterfinals of that competition; what happened at Old Trafford turned out to be no more than a staging post on a road to nowhere. For the visitors, it was different. In hindsight, that draw would come to be seen as the start of a journey that would end with Greece conquering a continent and shocking the world.
"This is a country that loves football," says Fyssas. It was not, however, a country that appeared to be especially good at it. Greece's last visit to a European Championships was in 1980. They had made it to the 1994 World Cup but did not win a game in the United States. That was not really a surprise: they had never won a game in a major tournament. They had never even scored a goal.
Desperate to change that miserable record, in 2001 the Greek Football Association handed responsibility of the under-performing national team to a veteran German coach renowned as a smart tactician and, above all else, an austere disciplinarian. The draw at Old Trafford was just the second game of his reign but it was enough to prove to his players, and to the fans, that Otto Rehhagel was on to something.
"The first thing he taught us was that the national team had to come first," says Fyssas. Greek football is fiercely partisan; so closely did players identify with Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK, the country's three club giants, that forgetting tribal enmity and uniting behind the blue-and-white flag had always proved difficult. "Rehhagel insisted that everything else came after the national team."
In qualifying for 2004, the impact was impressive. Greece did not lose for 15 games. They won in Spain. Under Rehhagel's guidance, they strolled to a place in Portugal and along the way, they developed a formidable spirit.
"It was more like a family," says Fyssas. "It was not one of these national teams with 55 players. We had 20 or so who were always in the squad -- he would bring two or three more along to have a look at them -- and so we were very close. We would sacrifice everything for each other."
Another member of that squad, Vasilis Tsiartas, agrees. "We were all equals together," he says. "We were all connected. It was unique."
But their good form in qualifying did not lead to any delusions of grandeur as Euro 2004 approached. Simply being there was almost (almost) enough. After all, as their failure to qualify for this summer's edition suggests, this is a nation that is still by no means a fixture at football's grand showpieces.
"The target at the start was to win a game," says Tsiartas, a left-sided midfielder who would be used as an impact substitute throughout the finals. "Just one game. It was something none of the national teams had been able to do [at a major finals]. Even the side who had gone to the World Cup in 1994 had not managed to beat anyone. That would have counted as a success: winning just once."
NOBODY IN REHHAGEL'S SQUAD slept the night after the opening game. The players, their bodies still pulsing with adrenaline, watched repeats of their 2-1 win over Portugal again and again, listening to the delirious commentary from Greece's national radio station, which sent shivers down their spines.
"That win released us," says Tsiartas. They had achieved their target in one game. "We felt free."
In their next fixture, they recovered from a goal down to hold Spain to a draw, leaving the group on a knife-edge: Spain and Greece on four points, the hosts on three. Greece would be sure of qualifying if they beat pointless Russia in their last match. They failed, going two goals down inside the first 17 minutes, unable to recover even after Zisis Vryzas halved the deficit just before the interval.
It didn't matter. Early in the second half, Nuno Gomes gave Portugal the lead against Spain, and Luiz Felipe Scolari's side held on. Greece went through as runners-up. France would await in the quarterfinals.
"The France of [Zinedine] Zidane, [Thierry] Henry, [Robert] Pires, [Lilian] Thuram, [Bixente] Lizarazu," says Fyssas with a hint of awe even now. "They had so many fantastic players."
At the squad's insistence, Rehhagel switched his system, detailing Giourkas Seitaridis to man-mark Henry and leaving the rest of his side to play zone defence. Greece won 1-0. "After that, I believed we could do something special," Fyssas says.
Tsiartas, though, was not quite so convinced. Their semifinal opponents, the Czech Republic, had illuminated the competition. UEFA exec Michel Platini, no less, had singled out their attack -- inspired by Pavel Nedved, spearheaded by Jan Koller and Milan Baros -- for praise, eulogising their style. He was pointedly quiet on the subject of the Greeks. After all, they were not, after all, winning many neutral hearts and minds.
Rehhagel's career had been built on a stout defence and a cautious (some might say dour) approach. Greece did not have the players to convince him to change, even if he had shown the slightest inclination. They did not have a star to build around or the craft and guile to go toe-to-toe with Europe's sophisticates so he looked, instead, to exploit the raw material at his disposal.
"We only had the weapons we had been given," says Fyssas. "We did not have a Zidane, or Simao, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We only had hard work, sacrifice, determination and that family spirit. What we did is the same as how Atletico Madrid play now."
It was understandable -- and their dedication was nothing short of admirable -- but it did not seem so at the time. Greece were, in the words of the Guardian, the "only underdogs in history who everyone wants to see get beaten." They were accused of being boring, negative, of killing the tournament as a spectacle, draining it of joy, stifling games, asphyxiating better teams. Platini knew they were bad for business; there were worries that perhaps they might encourage others to follow suit.
Fyssas himself "does not dispute" the criticism that team attracted, but nor does he apologise for it. They had, as he says, little choice and when it came down to it, it worked.
Against the Czechs, Rehhagel's team shut down the attack that had won so many admirers and then, in extra-time, Traianos Dellas scored the only goal of the game. More than that, he scored the only "silver goal" in history: UEFA had ruled that extra time would finish after just 15 minutes if the scores were no longer level, a rule that lasted for just one tournament: Greece's tournament. "That was when I thought we could actually win it," says Tsiartas.
A COUPLE OF DAYS before the final, Greece's squad gathered some chairs together at their training camp and sat down for a team meeting. For all that the members of that side describe it as a family, it was not without its conflicts. The two goalkeepers, Antonios Nikopolidis and Konstantinos Chalkias, were not on speaking terms when the tournament started.
Midfielder Angelos Basinas had been in dispute with the Greek FA over bonus payments; several players complained to Rehhagel about his treatment of specific players -- they were especially unhappy about his strained relationship with the defender Michalis Kapsis -- while Tsiartas was disappointed not to have been included in the starting XI during the group stages.
That afternoon, though, all of that was forgotten. The players spoke frankly about what they had done and what they might now achieve. "We discussed it very openly," says Tsiartas. "We told each other that this was the only opportunity that we would get to write history. 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."
"We all admitted that if you had said to us before the tournament that we would make the final, we would have said yes, that's fine, we don't care if we win or lose," says Fyssas. "That would have been a special success. But once we were actually there, we were so determined to make that final step. We left that meeting and knew we had to finish the job off."
Now, at last, came his chance to play on his home turf. The tournament ended as it had started, with Greece facing Portugal, the hosts, this time at Benfica's Estadio da Luz.
Greece's 15,000 fans started arriving early in the afternoon, in the blistering heat, their white shirts gleaming. They roared defiance, the quality that had brought Rehhagel's team so far, and that would take them one step further.
Another clean sheet, another Angelos Charisteas goal and another win: As horrified silence descended on Lisbon, Athens erupted in joy.
"The biggest cities in Greece will burn tonight," Kapsis said. Theo Zagorakis, the captain and player of the tournament, remembers only "dancing around like a lunatic" after their 1-0 victory had secured the first and only trophy in his country's history.
If anything, the memories have grown more special with time. "It is not very often that footballers can do something for their country," Tsiartas says now. "The most important thing for all of us was that we could succeed for all of our fellow citizens, all of our fellow Greeks. People still stop me now to say thank you. People still remember it. I am still incredibly proud to have been involved with it, to know that my name is in history."
The slogan printed on Greece's team bus said it all. "Ancient Greece had 12 gods," it read, according to Sports Illustrated. "Modern Greece has 11."
That view was not universally held. The Daily Telegraph might have admired their spirit, their defiance, but its report of that game struck a sombre note. "A tear flowed down the face of the beautiful game," its match report of that fixture began. In the Guardian, David Miller was more scathing still, accusing the Greeks of having secured victory through "every unscrupulous, negative means" at their disposal. Pauleta, the Portugal striker, suggested it was "regrettable that a team that does nothing but defend ends up as European champion."
Across the continent, many seemed to agree. Euro 2004 was written off as one of the worst tournaments of recent years, a victory for anti-football, for the artisans over the artists. In Greece, there was no time to worry about such weighty concerns. There was a party to get started.
TAKIS FYSSAS MADE IT to his wedding. Christina did not need to be concerned. Along with the rest of Rehhagel's side, he landed in Athens on July 5, four days before the ceremony. Their plane had to taxi through an arch of water shot into the air by fire engines as it made its way down the runway. Hundreds of thousands poured on to the Greek capital's streets to welcome them home, waving flags, chanting, singing. The month before the Olympics returned to Athens, they held the victory parade at the city's original Olympic stadium. There were tens of thousands more there.
A few days later, Takis and Christina married on the beach at Vouliagmeni. The country's football association's president turned up, too, with a special gift, for one night only.
"He put the European Championship trophy on my table," Fyssas says. It caused quite a stir. "We were not the only wedding on the beach that day. There were a few others nearby. All of the people from the other weddings wanted to come and have their photo taken with the cup. Everybody forgot about the bride and groom. We had started the day with 300 guests. At 2 a.m., on the beach, there were maybe a thousand people there, all of them celebrating with us."
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.