This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
“All I feel is pride, pride, pride.” Speaking to a Guardian journalist while Athens celebrated the most incredible, unlikely, astounding victory in recent times, Maria Kokkinou could barely contain herself.
It is difficult to accurately portray the magnitude of what Maria and her countrymen had just witnessed. Before Euro 2004, Greece had played six, lost five, drawn one and won none in major tournaments. They were the second-worst side in World Cup finals history.
The obstacles they had to surmount were significant, Euro 2004 was a high-quality tournament that served as an international stage for future icons like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Albeit a bit of a cliché, it was a tournament contested by numerous golden generations: Portugal, England, Sweden, Denmark and the other surprise package, the Czech Republic.
They entered this grand stage as underdogs but calling the final result a shock almost does them an injustice in reality. They managed to achieve what the previous champions France couldn’t, what the Czech Republic’s great entertainers couldn’t, what the golden generation of England couldn’t. They were crowned the most stunning of European champions.
Before the final at the Estádio da Luz, Greece had only conceded 11 goals in their previous 11 competitive matches, they averaged 48 tackles per match, and only one goal after half time in the entire tournament. This was no different.
Every time a Seleção player received the ball there was a Greek in their face preventing them making a pass, stifling them. They were effectively playing deep from the start, sticking to their game plan: defend deep, press high. Even in the ninth minute, Greek defenders were letting the ball run out of play to effectively waste time and frustrate their hosts. There was an emphasis on set pieces and long throws – and why not: the majority of their goals in this tournament had come from crosses into the box.
A perfect encapsulation of how Otto Rehhagel wanted his side to play came in the 19th minute. Portugal took a quick free-kick with a young Ronaldo finding himself in a bit of space on the edge of the box. Within seconds he is surrounded by seven Greek defenders displaying the tenacity and passion that made this victory possible.
Every tackle, every press, every block was made with the knowledge that one mistake and this surreal odyssey could come to an untimely end.
But that is one of the glorious aspects of this Greece side – there were no egos or tricks, no deals with Zeus or grandeurs of delusion. It was a side built in the image of their unfashionable coach. ‘King’ Otto Rehhagel, as he’s called in Greece, went from being a tough-as-nails defender in the Bundesliga to a continent-conquering coach thanks to a combination of strong motivational skills and an emphasis on team ethics.
He must be the only German to be bestowed with the gloriously…