Summer of 2004


I think Plato, Aristotle and Socrates would have loved football. They could have had endless chat about various philosophies of how to play the game. Would they support Arsenal (pretty, but wasteful and not as successful as they want to be) or Stoke (get the job done with limited resource as efficiently as possible, pushing the laws of the game to their limits).

Euro 2004 provided ample scope for such chat as the Greeks managed to push their way through the tournament despite being a squad of journeymen footballers, playing defensive football and generally stifling the more skillful sides. Not many would have had their money on a clogger who struggled to get on the first team of a mid-table Bundesliga side scoring the winner in a final. But that’s exactly what happened.

Placed in group A with hosts Portugal, Spain, and Russia, few gave Greece a hope, and yet they got stuck right in by taking the lead against Portugal in the 7th minute in the first game, before doubling their lead in the second half with a penalty. A 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo pulled back a consolation in injury time, but by that time, Greece’s stubborn defence had held firm and victory was theirs. Later that evening, Spain beat Russia 1-0, missing many chances to increase their lead, which would ultimately cost them dear.
In the second round of group matches, Spain saw their lead through Morientes pegged back following sloppy defending and a cool head from Angelos Charisteas. The game finished as a draw, before Portugal eased to a nervy-but-ultimately comfortable 2-0 win over Russia, which knocked the latter out.
Portugal needed nothing less than victory over Spain to qualify in the final round, while Greece and Spain were left fretting over goal-difference if they lost their games. Greece fell behind quickly to a 2-0 deficit against Russia, before Vryzas pulled a goal back just before half-time. As it stood, Portugal were being knocked out due to head-to-heads against Greece, while Spain were going through. 12 minutes after the break, it was turned on its head as Nuno Gomes was given far too much time to turn by the Spanish defence and slotted in. No further goals were forthcoming and the hosts and Greece went through, while perennial bottlers Spain took the short trip home.

Group B started off with a dire goal-less draw between Switzerland and Croatia, before England faced France that evening. It’s still unbelievable how England managed to throw this game away, but that they did. Frank Lampard had given them the lead with a header and they had the chance to double the lead after Rooney was tripped in the box, but Barthez did well to save Beckham’s resulting penalty. England had further chances to finish France off but couldn’t take them. In injury time, France had a free kick a few yards outside the area. Zidane took it, and David James had no chance in the goal. 1-1. But it wasn’t over. Gerrard underhit a backpass while Thierry Henry was right behind him. David James couldn’t avoid fouling him in the area. Up came Zidane, who dispatched the penalty with ease (not before throwing up on the way to take it) and England were beaten.
Rather the first game than the last, though, the 3-0 win over Switzerland in the next round announced Wayne Rooney to the world and knocked the Swiss out. France laboured to a point against Croatia, meaning the three remaining teams all still had a shot in the last round.
Croatia took a surprise lead against England, but they were outclassed and went to lose the game 4-2, while France again struggled to break down the Swiss before prevailing 3-1 (Switzerland’s Vonlanthen became the youngest ever Euro scorer in this game). France and England went through.

Group C was full of drama and alleged conspiracy- all but one of the games featured a goal in the last five minutes, albeit not all of them decisive. Denmark and Italy fought out a goalless draw which during which Francesco Totti spat at Christian Poulson, forcing a UEFA suspension which meant he missed the rest of the tournament (and making a mockery of the Fiat advert he featured in during it). Sweden beat a woeful Bulgaria 5-0 on the same day, featuring a wonderful diving header from Henrik Larsson.
The next game, played in Braga’s bizarre kop-less stadium in the middle of a quarry saw a slight improvement for Bulgaria, who only went down 2-0 (featuring a goal from Jon Dahl Tomasson, whose full name in England is Jon Dahl Tomasson-who-once-had-a-bad-spell-with-Newcastle if commentators are to be believed). Sweden and Italy played each other that evening- Italy took a deserved lead and looked good for a win until Zlatan scored his first tournament goal with a cheeky backheel that just squeaked in over Cristian Vieri’s head on the line. 1-1 it finished, and the results meant that Denmark and Sweden would both qualify if their game finished 2-2 in the final round, regardless of what Italy did against Bulgaria.
The Italians cried conspiracy before the game (and they have a point, using head-to-head instead of goal difference causes situations like this and raises questions about sporting integrity) but if anything they looked like they wanted to make it irrelevant by playing very poorly against Bulgaria. Martin Petrov scored a penalty just before half-time. Denmark were leading at this stage thanks to Tomasson-who-once-had-a etc. in a spirited encounter that didn’t have the look of a fix. Sweden and Italy both equalised almost simultaneously, but Italy just couldn’t find a way through. Denmark took the lead again in appalling weather conditions as Tomasson-who… struck a long-range shot that just dipped under the Swedish bar. Denmark pressed for a third, while Sweden sought an equaliser. You’d have to be daft to think there was a conspiracy here as Denmark were trying their hardest to knock their neighbours out, but to no avail. Sweden equalised in the 89th minute, rendering Cassano’s 94th minute winner against Bulgaria meaningless. The change of expression as he wheeled away in celebration only to be told it didn’t matter was almost heartbreaking. Sweden and Denmark went through.

Group D saw debutants Latvia up against Germany, Netherlands, and Czech, a veritable group of death, but they acquited themselves well, taking the lead against Czech through Verpakovskis before Baros and Heinz asserted the Czechs’ superiority. Later that evening, rivals Germany and Netherlands fought out a 1-1 draw, van Nistelrooy hitting a brilliant equaliser from a tight angle minutes from the end.
In the second round, Latvia caused a minor shock by holding Germany to a goal-less draw. Later that day, the Czechs came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in a brilliant game, featured a super Baros goal from a Koller chest-down. Vladimir Smicer scored the winner two minutes from the end, meaning the Czechs were through as group winners with nothing to play for in their last game.
They could have given Germany an easy ride but they did not. Michael Ballack scored a screamer from the edge of the area, but Heinz’s free-kick cancelled it out. Baros’s winner, combined with the Netherlands’ 3-0 win over Latvia, meant the Germans would miss out on the knock-out rounds for a second successive Euro. Latvia were out of their depth, but won many friends. The Czechs and the Netherlands went through: many were installing the Czechs as favourites, with good reason.

England quarter-finals are rarely forgettable. Against Portugal, Michael Owen gave them an early lead, but instead of pushing for a second, England sat back and defended (a strategy that had served them well against Argentina a couple of years earlier). Hope of an extension to the lead diminished on 27 minutes when Wayne Rooney was forced off with a metatarsal injury (the metatarsal having been discovered two years earlier when David Beckham injured his). Helder Postiga-who-had-a-disastrous-spell-at-Spurs headed in unmarked for an equaliser seven minutes from the end, but England came back into it. Sol Campbell headed in but the “goal” was ruled out due to a foul by John Terry, a decision endlessly talked about the rest of the summer. It finished 1-1 and extra time beckoned . Manuel Rui Costa hit a goal in off the bar from outside the area before Frank Lampard equalised, captilising from confusion in the box. Penalties. Beckham missed his, blaming the surface, as did Rui Costa. Darius Vassell had his shot saved by a gloveless Ricardo, who picked himself up and scored the decider. The Sun published contact details for Urs Meier, the swiss referee who officiated this game, causing him to receive death threats and receive police protection.

The next evening France struggled to open up a Greek side they were expected to sweep aside easily. They had their chances, but seemed to be thwarted every time. Greece created their own chances, but they were largely bread and butter for Barthez. It wasn’t until after half time that Zagorakis cleverly flicked past Lizarazu before crossing in- Charisteas had found himself space in the box thanks to another Greek playing causing confusion and headed in. France couldn’t equalise, and the Greeks progressed.

A goal-less draw between Sweden and the Netherlands was memorable for that most rare of things- a penalty shoot-out win for the Oranje. This time Olof Mellberg was the unfortunate striker. Until this point, the Netherlands were the only country with a worse record in penalties than England- their victory over Costa Rica in 2014 means that the three lions can have the record all to themselves.

Finally, a three-goal salvo for the Czechs in the second half against Denmark meant that no repeat of the Euro ’92 shock was on the cards, Koller and Baros again, combining to show their quality. This was Tomasson -who-once-etc.’s last appearance in a major tournament, causing disappointment to many English commentators.

Strangely, the BBC decided to run their “goal of the tournament” competition before the semi-finals. This seemed to backfire, for after Portugal had taken the lead against the Dutch through Ronaldo, Maniche received a short pass from a corner, took it to the corner of the 18-yard box, and curled in the second, much to Edwin van der Sar’s anger. Not that we saw it, we were watching a replay of the incident that led to the corner and the director only cut back as the ball drifted in. An own-goal by Andrade wasn’t enough for the Dutch as they lost 2-1.

The next day, a strong Czech team were expected to be too strong for Greece. Surely? Alas no, though they did go into the history books as the only team in a major tournament to lose to a silver goal (if you’re winning at half-time in extra-time, you win the match). After the game finished goal-less despite Czech dominance , Traianos Dellas finished a near-post header at the stroke of half-time in extra time. There was no time to kick off again, and the Greeks were through. Silver goals were quietly dropped for major tournaments going forward.

So, then, the final. Portugal were escorted to it by the Portuguese airports with fireworks and cheering crowds. Greece were quiet and didn’t make much of a fuss. The game followed a familiar pattern, with Portugal creating the majority of chances and Greece weathering the storm. The manner of the winning goal was so familiar, Charisteas heading in unmarked from a Basinas corner, their only shot on target, and it seemed the outcome was predictable. Portugal rallied, Greece had their backs to the wall, but held firm, riding luck and getting vital tackles in. The final whistle sounded and Ronaldo was in tears.

Perhaps indicative of how this was perhaps the least popular underdog story ever, The Times the next day had devoted its back page to Wimbledon and the usual “the Game” football insert was dedicated instead to the British Grand Prix. The Greeks got the second-to-last page. The Guardian described Greece as the only underdogs you wanted to lose. Victory against the odds, it would seem, has to be pretty to be significant. I would love to know what the philosophers would say about that.

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