How Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004

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It is very rare that a major international tournament provides a real shock in the final.

Usually, the best teams do progress to the final and the shocks are reserved for the early rounds. World Soccer ranks the United States beating England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup as the first truly big shock, but the final between Uruguay and Brazil was expected. South Korea beating Italy 2-1 in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16 was a massive shock, but nobody was surprised to see Germany and Brazil in the final. No, shocks are very rarely maintained throughout the tournament, but in 2004, Greece did just that.

Euro 2020 kicks off in Rome in June, with all the major nations present. Portugal are the current holders, having lifted the title in France five years ago, and they are second favorites to take the trophy in the latest Euro 2020 Betting Odds. It would be their second triumph, the second for arguably the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, but they should be aiming for a hattrick of titles, after hosting the event back in 2004. They suffered a shock in the opening game, Ronaldo’s first international tournament goal was not enough to stop them from losing 2-1 to Greece, but few thought the underdogs would repeat the feat three weeks later in the final. That is exactly what they did, and this is the story of how the outsiders shocked the world.

Greece, managed by Otto Rehhagel, barely registered on the radar when discussing tournament winners ahead of the competition. They had only qualified for a major tournament twice, the European Championship of 1980, where they finished bottom of their group with a single point and a single goal, and the 1994 World Cup, where they played three, lost three and failed to score. The fact they had qualified ahead of Spain, who needed a play-off, may have escaped some supporters, but they very quickly began surprising the world.

Drawn in a group with Portugal, Spain and Russia, they were not expected to improve upon previous performances but sporting a back five, they got off to a fine start. Midfielder Vasilis Tsiartas claimed the Greek side only wanted to win a single game, and 90 minutes into the competition they achieved it. Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas ensured a 2-1 victory over the hosts. Their approach was very much about stifling the opposition, with tight man-marking and one man always left over to pick up any slack. It was described as negative, with one journalist even writing ‘a tear flowed down the face of football’ after their win against Portugal. Tsiartas later described that win as ‘releasing’ for the Greek players. “We felt free,” he said, free to go on and shock the whole world.

They held Spain 1-1 in their next game but were defeated by Russia in the final group match, needing a Portugal win to eliminate Spain and progress to the next round. France, the holders of the trophy, were beaten 1-0 in characteristic fashion. The Czech Republic, many people’s outsiders for the tournament, suffered the same fate. In both matches, Greece sat deep, defended, and scored similar goals, headers from crosses. The style was always the same: five at the back only tweaked slightly depending on the opposition. It was, to some degree at least, anti-football, the art of self-defense over the art of attack.

In the final, they sprung a huge surprise, swapping to four at the back in response to Portugal’s lone forward. They could still man mark players and have one left over, but it allowed for a little more freedom further up the field to contest a midfield battle. Ronaldo, Deco, Pauleta and Luís Figo were all fine footballers, but Greece suffocated them, blocked them, and hit on the counter-attack. On 57 minutes, Angelos Charisteas snatched a goal for the underdogs, another header, and it won them the trophy.

Greece had shocked not just Europe, but the world. Without a previous win in international tournaments, they had beaten the hosts twice, the holders, the swashbuckling Swiss team, and emerged from a group containing Spain, who won the next two tournaments. It might have been anti-football, but in terms of a tactical approach, it was utter genius and remains the benchmark for teams in Euro 2020, such as Ukraine, to follow.


So there it is! How Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004. Be sure to check out more of our articles on Euro 2020 as we head into the tournament this month. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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-> Picking England’s Euro 2020 Squad
-> Picking Germany’s Euro 2020 Squad

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