Before UEFA EURO 2004 kicked off, the normal talk was of which superstar and their team would come out on top in the battle for the European title. In the end, a totally unsung group of players were to triumph in one of European football's greatest surprises.
Greece went into the competition as rank outsiders. However, few people had taken notice of their increasingly impressive qualifying campaign, in which they lost their first two matches, but won the next six, conceding no goals in that excellent run.
In what was a splendid month-long festival of football in the Portuguese sun, the Greeks, a solid, pragmatic side which played to their strengths, confounded one team after another, and fully deserved their title in the end. They were coached by Otto Rehhagel, a veteran German who had massive club experience, in particular with Werder Bremen and FC Bayern München in his native country.
The shrewd Rehhagel succeeded in knitting together his squad and coaxing them into an iron discipline that initially frustrated and eventually broke every opponent. In the opening match in Porto, they shocked the fervent home support by beating the Portuguese hosts 2-1.
In the quarter-finals, the holders France were unable to cope with Greece's determination and crashed to defeat. The semi-finals saw the Czech Republic, many people's competition favourites after some fine early displays, eliminated by an extra-time Greek silver goal, key man Pavel Nedvěd having departed injured in the first half.
The final itself in Lisbon was a tightly fought affair. Portugal, coached by Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, had battled back from that opening-day shock, and were desperate to give their fans a memorable climax. But the Greeks had other ideas.
As in previous matches, a no-nonsense defence marshalled by the tough central defender Traianos Dellas, a combative midfield led by eventual player of the tournament Theodoris Zagorakis, and an opportunist striker in the shape of Angelos Charisteas broke Portugal's hearts. A single Charisteas header from a corner near the hour-mark gave Greece a triumph that was beyond their wildest dreams.
For some of the continents biggest stars the tournament was clouded with disappointment. Zinédene Zidane and France, despite a dramatic group-match comeback to beat England, never regained past heights. England and David Beckham promised much, fired by brilliant teenage striker Wayne Rooney, but fell to Portugal in a dramatic quarter-final penalty shoot-out.
Spain failed to get out of second gear, and the much-fancied Dutch came unstuck against Portugal in the semi-final. Ultimately, it was a team without recognisable stars that conquered Europe. Greece's stunning success provided an example to the rest of the continent: with hard work, belief, the necessary good fortune, and unbending team spirit, anything is possible.
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