Greece’s Impossible EURO Victory, 20 Years Later

Twenty years since Greece shocked the world at EURO 2004, we revisit one of the game’s biggest ever upsets.

The concept of storytelling has been instilled in Greek culture for over two millennia, from mythological tales about the Gods of Olympus to literary pillars like The Iliad and The Odyssey. In those stories, one of the most popular themes is the underdog and their quest to glory. In 2004, for the people of Greece, the myth of the underdog became a reality.

July 4 may be known as the United States’ Independence Day, but in Greece it is remembered as the nation’s greatest sporting achievement, winning EURO 2004.

The Road to EURO 2004

Before 2004, the Greek national team had only qualified for two major international tournaments, EURO 1980 and World Cup 1994. Greece would not make it past the group stage in either tournament, and failed to net a single goal at USA ’94.

A federation that struggled to develop quality players and got stuck in the past experienced constant failure on the international stage. That would all change in 2002.

After failing to qualify for the World Cup, the Hellenic Federation chose to think outside the box. For only the third time since 1960, they brought in a foreign manager, Otto Rehhagel.

Rehhagel only managed two games in 2002 World Cup qualifying, overseeing a draw against England at Old Trafford, and instilling some belief in the hearts of not just the Greek fans, but the players themselves. The optimism was ultimately rewarded with Greece qualifying for the 2004 EUROs, which included a 1-0 victory over Spain in Spain. The story of the underdog began.

The Path to Glory

Heading into the tournament, only Latvia had worse odds to win the tournament than Greece. To make matters worse for the Greeks, they were thrown into the “group of death” with hosts Portugal, Spain, and Russia. Qualifying out of that group was considered impossible, but the stories of the past always taught us that anything is possible.

Greece’s 2-1 victory over Portugal to kick off the tournament shocked everyone, with Greek announcers making the reference that Greece was like a floating ship that crashed the party. The unclimbable mountain’s peak started to become visible.

Now the question was — could Greece repeat this against Spain in what was another disadvantageous crowd? A 1-1 draw put any doubts to bed and gave Greece a strong shot at qualifying past the group.

Greece would face their first defeat in the final group game to Russia, but a goal from Zisis Vryzas was enough to send the side ahead of Spain to the quarters on a total goals scored tiebreaker. With that, the 2004 squad had accomplished what none of their predecessors could do: qualify past the group stages at a major international tournament.

The group stages were just the beginning though, and despite Greece making it out of the group of death, they were still given no hope. The general consensus was that Greece’s gold-plated road would end against a stacked France in the quarterfinals. And if it had, the tournament would have still been a success. But that Greek team was not there to just be another nice little story in the footnotes of football history. It was there to win and be remembered forever.

The Knockouts

An Angelos Charisteas winner in the 65th minute disposed of France, and the Greeks continued to display their sensational defensive prowess. Their MO was to suffer off the ball and take their chances when on the attack. That victory made Greece the first-ever team to beat the hosts and the defending champions in the same tournament.

The belief grew after beating Les Bleus, and next up was Czech Republic, who were considered the favorites. Maybe it was the sporting gods being on Greece’s side or maybe it was the gods they taught us in Greek mythology as young Greek children, but the Greek defense survived onslaught after onslaught from the Czech attack. And after 105 minutes, it was Greece who broke the deadlock through a Traianos Dellas header in extra time to send Greece to the final.

The Biggest Upset Yet

The victory over the Czech Republic set up a final truly worthy of a Homer epic.

Greece versus Portugal. Underdog against host, David versus Goliath. Would Greece complete the sport’s greatest upset or would Portugal exact revenge from the opening match and win glory in their backyard?

And on that July 4 in 2004, while the fireworks were in the sky in Times Square, there were even bigger pyrotechnics in the streets of Athens, Lisbon, and everywhere else across the world as football’s biggest ever upset happened. Greece had done the impossible defeating Portugal in Lisbon to win the EUROs.

It was Charisteas delivering for Greece once again when it mattered most with a bullet header in the 57th minute. Captain and player of the tournament Theodoros Zagorakis lifted the trophy in front of thousands of Greeks and dejected Portuguese fans. I was young, but I remember my dad lifting me on his shoulders on our balcony on the Greek island of Rhodes, yelling we won the cup. It was a moment that united a whole nation. Everyone forgot about everything else that was happening and focused on this one event. We had won the cup and that is all that mattered. To make it even better for Greece, the Olympics would be in Athens just three weeks later. It was the summer of Greece.

The Guys That Made It Happen

king otto movie

Otto Rehhagel or “King Otto” as he is regarded in Greece, is the one most credited for this victory. A guy that could not speak a single word of Greek, united 23 Greek players and led them to footballing war. And in Spartan fashion they were the ones that rose to the top. Zagorakis, who won the most tackles in the tournament, was a leader amongst men throughout the competition. Other players like Giorgos Karagounis, who scored the first goal and instilled the initial belief in the hearts of the Greeks, and Charisteas came through time after time with clutch goals.

And then there is the defense who deserves a different kind of plaudit. In the years since 2004, many have tried to diminish Greece’s accomplishment because of their style of football and how defensive it was. But those four defenders in Dellas, Takis Fyssas, Giourkas Seitaridis, and Mihalis Kapsis put some of the best defensive performances against some of the best players the sport has ever seen.

What makes Greece’s accomplishment stand out is who they played against. They went up against the golden generations of France, Portugal, and Czech Republic. They defeated host nation Portugal twice in the same tournament. Held players like Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Pavel Nedved, and Milan Baros off the score sheet. And a huge credit in addition to the defenders goes to goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis. The veteran keeper was like a brick wall and would not allow anything to pass him in the knockout stages.

What’s Happened Since?

2004 was Greece’s peak when it came to football, but the nation suffered a huge shock not qualifying for the 2006 World Cup whilst being European champions. They recovered well and qualified for four straight tournaments in EURO 2008, World Cup 2010, EURO 2012, and World Cup 2014.

They’d see mixed results in the four tournaments as EURO 2008 saw them have the worst defense of any defending EUROs winner. World Cup 2010 saw them score their first World Cup goal, but still suffered group stage elimination.

EURO 2012 saw Greece qualify past the group stages for the first time since 2004, but there was no underdog story this time, as Germany dispatched them quite easily in the first knockout stage. And in 2014 Greece had their biggest success on the global stage, qualifying to the round of 16 of the World Cup. Georgios Samaras’ goal against Côte d’Ivoire remains one of Greece’s biggest goals post-2004. Like 2012, an upset was not on the cards in the knockouts as Greece lost in heartbreaking fashion on penalties to Costa Rica. The tournament was also regarded as the end of the golden generation of players who were still there since 2004.

Present Day

Greece has struggled to remain competitive since the end of their golden generation. The closest the nation has gotten to a major tournament since 2014 was this past March, losing to Georgia on penalties in EURO 2024 qualification.

The sins of the past are being repeated in the present, as the federation still prioritizes veterans instead of fully committing to the young and exciting players. On the bright side, Greece do look more competitive now, and fans should have some belief. Olympiacos success this season could have a positive impact on the national team as well.

Twenty years later, that night in Lisbon still lives fondly in the hearts of the Greeks, and it is a story those who witnessed tell their kids and grandkids today. The night Greece became champions of Europe.

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