Euro 2004

Game Changers: Greece's Underdog Victory at Euro 2004

The Greek team of 2004 was full of guys who recognised each other from the many levels before you step out for the senior team, who inhabited the same neighbourhoods and lived the same defeats and triumphs. That summer it all fitted together perfectly.

by Toby Sprigings
Jun 9 2016, 1:54pm

Oliver Berg/EPA

If you require further perspective into the level of shock that Leicester City's Premier League title win constitutes, consider this: the previous greatest football upset in modern memory – Greece's victory at Euro 2004 – was priced prior to the tournament at a frankly inviting 250/1. To put it, via that moronic modern medium that allows bookies to promote themselves, another way, it was only slightly less likely than one of Danny Dyer, David Beckham or Sean Connery becoming the next James Bond. Chicken feed compared to the achievements of the Ranieri Boys; both Alan Curbishley and Jeremy Corbyn were more likely to be seen seducing Falopi Antubez over a shaken vodka martini than the title being lifted at the King Power.

As you might recall, one-goal upset victories in the opening game of a tournament were hardly news to football audiences in 2004. Just two years previously at World Cup 2002, Senegal had spun what began as 'the biggest upset in football history', beating holders France 1-0 in the opening game in Seoul, starting a path to the quarter-finals. Given that football's deciding moments are so rare – and can appear in a flash simply on the basis of a few consecutive bad decisions, or just because someone is particularly feeling their oats that day – it is the sport most vulnerable to the psychology of its players. In basketball, a team in terrible shape will still likely score about 70 points; in rugby, in pretty much every case you know you're going to score, which allows for greater mental solidity.

But in football, a team in terrible shape can go for whole months without even troubling the scoreboard. Given the significance that goals have, there's a power in football that becomes clear when teams that were hitherto doing fine in a game suddenly disintegrate, or when one missed tackle leads to one flapped punch at a cross and one bad header, and it's 1-0 again. And on the flipside, only in football is there such an awareness of how far psychological momentum can carry you. One goal can go a long way.

Georgios Karagounis escapes Portugal in the opening game // Nuno Veiga/EPA

France, as Philippe Auclair's biography of Thierry Henry beautifully lays out, turned up in the Far East with the most dangerous psychology imaginable: an array of sponsors, football execs and hangers-on were concerning themselves with where to throw the victory party from the moment their plane set off. The psychological manifestation of that on the pitch was that they couldn't find the drive to score a single goal.

For a moment, put yourself in the shoes that Greece would have turned up at Euro 2004 wearing. The most starry member of the side, if only by club affiliation, was Giorgos Karagounis of Inter Milan, but neither he nor Traianos Dellas of Roma were anything like integral to their teams, and Italian football was already on the wane by then. The rest were overwhelmingly Greek born and bred, with a smattering of European adventures thrown in at the likes of Atletico Madrid and Bolton Wanderers. Guys who would have recognised each other from the many levels that domestic football requires before you step out for the first team, who inhabited the same neighbourhoods, who had lived the same defeats and triumphs. Guys who knew they were good enough to play, but had no true sense – no need to worry – whether they were good enough to win as a unit. Prior to that Euros, Greece's last tournament appearance was a decade earlier at World Cup 1994; that stench of repetitive shortcomings that so infected England's golden generation was of no concern to the Greek boys of 2004.

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And managing them was the ace in the hole. The game changer, less for Greece – who have been a pitiful participant in tournament football since – but for management in general. I'll give you another minute to luxuriate in the unprecedented, unconscionable triumph of Leicester this season. And when you're done, it's my duty to inform you that in 1996-97 Otto Rehhagel oversaw a Kaiserslautern team that won the Bundesliga II, then in 1997-98 won the Bundesliga itself, beating a Bayern Munich side that a year later would play in the Champions League Final. Whether that's a bigger achievement than Leicester's is open to debate; what's for sure is that it would have put a belief in his approach, and an awareness of the magical possibilities of momentum deep into Rehhagel's veins (and, more practically, it would have taught him how to go to the home of a giant like Bayern Munich and come back with a 1-0 victory). Presumably, the Greeks couldn't help but believe they had a chance, particularly after 1-0 victories against Ukraine at home and Spain away in qualifying. 'Maybe something could happen and, if it doesn't, we've lost nothing', is a pretty powerful magic to bring to a tournament.

Oliver Berg/EPA

Momentum, of course, is built on moments. Moments are built on quality. One of the reasons Norwich didn't have a cat in hell's chance of surviving in the Premier League this term was that regardless of the industry and pressing going on further down the field, it's hard to believe in the value of any of itwhen you're relying on the quality of Cameron Jerome to finish off your chances. Likewise, the presence of Griezmann and Niguez, or Mahrez and Vardy, gives all the harrying their teams do a purpose. The first goal Greece scored at Euro 2004 was a rapier thrust from about 30 yards into the bottom corner by Karagounis; it was the kind of energising moment of above-and-beyond quality that allows your teammates to believe what they're doing has a point.

And so they pressed, buoyed by strikerAngelos Charisteas and with goalkeeperAntonios Nikopolidis – you remember, with the grey hair – having the tournament of a lifetime. There were some nice slices of luck as well, like a desperate-to-please 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo giving away a penalty in the opening game, or Pavel Nedved going off injured in the semi-final; never once did they score more than one goal in a game after their opening 2-1 victory. Someone would cross from the right, someone would head it in, for three consecutive games from quarter-finals to the trophy. What's also evident from the footage, as it was with Leicester this season, is that most teams they played couldn't quite believe they had to beat Greece. Their own psychologies would then have to switch from casual to desperate as Greece took their familiar 1-0 lead, which is never healthy. None of them ever recovered.

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Prior to 2004, no European country had ever won a major trophy with a foreign manager. For that reason alone, Otto Rehhagel's Greece deserve the label of game changers. But there's another kind of game changing that took place with their triumph, less codifiable, but probably infinitely more important to you and your happiness. It was simply a reminder that this thing we all assume we're watching – the big boys duking it out to see who's biggest – is actually more fragile and prone to disruption than that. A little momentum can go a long way.

And as it was neat that for the first and only time Euro 2004 began and ended with the same game, so it's neat that the worst manager Greece have ever had – sacked after losing at home to the Faroe Islands – as his next act finished this year by continuing their legacy, and winning the title for Leicester City.