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Stars recall Greece's EURO 2004 triumph against the odds

On the anniversary of one of the biggest shocks in international football, three of Greece's unlikely lads reflect on the glorious summer of 2004.

It is 16 years to the day since Greece completed one of the biggest shocks in football history, when the 150-1 tournament outsiders overcame the odds to sensationally win UEFA EURO 2004.

To mark the anniversary we twisted the arms of three stars of that glorious summer and convinced them to take us on a trip down memory lane: Giorgos Karagounis, goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis and top scorer Angelos Charisteas.

Group stage

Greece 2-1 Portugal
(Karagounis 7, Basinas 51p; Ronaldo 90+3)
12 June, Porto

Watch Karagounis stun Portugal in 2004 opener

Karagounis: Our main goal for the tournament was to enjoy taking part. It was the first finals for all of us: coach and players alike. We had won a qualifying group ahead of Spain so we deserved our place and now we wanted to enjoy it. It was a fiesta! We weren't complete outsiders, though: going into EURO, we were 15 games unbeaten.

Nikopolidis: When we went to Portugal, Giorgos, I remember we said: “Let’s go and get Greece’s first win in a major finals” and enjoy ourselves. Greece had participated at EURO 1980 and the 1994 World Cup in the United States and hadn't won a game.

Karagounis: The goal… Portugal lost the ball close to their area. I remember pressing them and getting the ball in an area where I always think about scoring. I had a problem with my right foot – for a while I thought I wouldn't even make the finals – and hadn't had a chance to shoot with it for two weeks until that moment. First shot, first goal; we were on our way.

Nikopolidis: That goal, early in the match, took our anxiety away and boosted our confidence, both as a team and as individuals. It was key.

Greece 1-1 Spain
(Charisteas 66, Morientes 28)
16 June, Porto

Angelos Charisteas and Antonios Nikopolidis at full time against Spain
Angelos Charisteas and Antonios Nikopolidis at full time against SpainAFP via Getty Images

Karagounis: This was the most difficult game of the entire finals, especially the second half. Sometimes, you just need luck and we had it on our side that day. We held on for a very important point and we were almost through.

Nikopolidis: A year earlier, we’d beaten them in Zaragoza. They knew what we were about. They were saying that “If we underestimate them, they’ll punish us”. They knew us, they knew it would be hard. That’s why it was the toughest game of the tournament for us.

Greece 1-2 Russia
(Vryzas 43; Kirichenko 2, Bulykin 17)
20 June, Faro-Loule

Karagounis: Russia had nothing to lose, they were already out; suddenly the pressure was on us, especially when they scored. Twice.

Nikopolidis: That first 20 minutes – we could have been 4-0 down! The second half was chaos. Half of us were pushing for a goal, the other half were trying to keep the scoreline as it was. We didn’t know if [a 2-0 loss] would be enough.

Best goals of EURO 2004

Karagounis: Fortunately, we managed to pull a goal back and qualify. It was the sweetest defeat of our careers.

Knockout stage

Quarter-finals: Greece 1-0 France
(Charisteas 65)
25 June, Lisbon

Karagounis: The greatest win in the history of the Greek national team. We beat the holders and favourites, the reigning European champions and recent World Cup winners. It was maybe the greatest France team. The game against France was the one which made us believe we could go all the way.

Nikopolidis: We had no pressure on us and we tried to give it our all – as Otto Rehhagel said in his speech that day, “If we are to fall then we fall bravely like Greeks”. In the end, we didn’t just avoid falling but we won and got through. That game became a turning point. That's when we started to realise we could go to the very end.

Angelos Charisteas celebrates his goal against France
Angelos Charisteas celebrates his goal against FranceGetty Images

Nikopolidis: We always had good players. What was missing was a man to inspire and to create a team and lead the country to success. That man was Otto Rehhagel. He was the man behind the creation of the team.

Karagounis: He came in with a plan for 30 players. There had always been great players but the national team lacked chemistry. We achieved that chemistry thanks to Otto. He stuck to his guns and he turned the national team into a true team, functioning like a club side – something that’s very hard to achieve.

Charisteas: Otto Rehhagel knew how to remove our anxiety before the games, before the important games also, and how to turn this anxiety into trust and confidence in each other. This is his talent, I think, and that’s why he is such a successful coach.

Nikopolidis: He always gave us examples of how smaller and weaker teams could beat much bigger opponents. It was hammered home and, in time, we all grew in confidence. No one was afraid of anyone. There was respect but not fear.

Semi-finals: Greece 1–0 Czech Republic
(Dellas 105+1)
1 July, Lisbon

Karagounis: They were the tournament's in-form team. They’d won all four games – the only team to do so.

Nikopolidis: When the game started, I told myself – because we’d faced great sides and defended really well – I said “You know what? We can keep a clean sheet.” But I was also aware that it’d be very hard for us to score. Our main weapon was set pieces. They were a team who didn’t concede from set pieces. How were we going to score?”

Watch Greece's EURO 2004 semi-final winner

Nikopolidis: In extra time, the Czechs lost their dynamic style, their belief waned and they grew nervous. We had nothing to lose. We played with strength and intensity, and substitutes Stelios [Giannakopoulos] and Vasilis [Tsiartas] breathed life into our attack. Then came the corner from Vasilis. Traianos [Dellas] scored and we went through.

Karagounis: To face Portugal again – just as the hotel manager had predicted …

Nikopolidis: Do you remember? He wrote that on the board in the very first meeting, before the opening match. “The final will be Greece vs Portugal.” We all laughed.

Karagounis: We were saying “What is that crazy person on about?”

Final: Greece 1-0 Portugal
(Charisteas 57)
4 July, Lisbon

EURO 2004 final highlights: Greece 1-0 Portugal

Nikopolidis: The Portugal players were under more pressure. You could see the anxiety on their faces, they were breathing heavily. I saw [Luís] Figo at one point going to the sidelines to change his boots, a sign of his unease. We tried to make the most of it.

Charisteas: Some dreams you keep for yourself and never talk about them. My dream when I first started playing football was to score a goal in a EURO final because the first game I watched on television was the 1988 final, Van Basten and all. And after 57 minutes I realised it.

Nikopolidis: Portugal lost all of that anxiety once we scored. They started playing differently, they pressured us a lot, too much, in the final 20 minutes. But we’d been coached to defend like that and were ready to withstand it. We weathered it, we dealt with it as a unit.

Charisteas: When we scored, you had the feeling there was no chance we were going to lose. We made sacrifices all over the pitch irrespective of our positions. At times I had to mark Cristiano [Ronaldo] and then counter. You have to make sacrifices for such a huge footballing miracle to take place.

Watch the final in full

Charisteas on his EURO 2004 winner for Greece

Nikopolidis: When you see such effort and sacrifice to protect the defensive structure of the team, you start to understand that our defence was on a very high level. There were also those who talked about us using an old style of football from a bygone era with a very defensive set-up, playing on the counter, and other comments like the fact we defended man-to-man. But those who underestimated us paid for it.

Karagounis: We thought we were invincible!

Nikopolidis: At full time I couldn’t believe it. It was a moment where you would ask somebody to pinch you to see if we were dreaming or not. Denmark did it [in 1992] but I think our success is much greater.

Charisteas: We were a family, a team. We put the collective above the individual; everyone played for the country, for the team, not for himself. We all respected each other and had so much love for what we did. We had a coach that brought in a very good philosophy and organised the team very well. If you put all those pieces together, it’s a recipe for champions.

Heroic homecoming

Charisteas: In the dressing room after the game we all had our underwear on, we were pouring champagne on each other and so on. And then we were told that the prime minister, [Konstantinos] Karamanlis, and his wife outside the door. Half of us were naked; the other half were scrambling to put something on.

Karagounis: Anything goes after a victory like that. All of us were on cloud nine, our feelings were out of control.

King Otto and the team at Greece's official homecoming
King Otto and the team at Greece's official homecoming AFP via Getty Images

Charisteas: I remember that we got to the bus with a party going on, with songs and chants. I’ve got a photograph of myself, Traianos Dellas and Kostas Katsouranis in the hotel swimming pool with our clothes on. We were going round, splashing water and singing songs. All our family was there with us. We were chanting and teasing each other… It was a unique feeling.

Charisteas: When we saw the pictures from home we looked at each other and wondered what was in store for us when we got back to Athens. Well, I don’t think there had ever been a welcome like that in Greece before!

Karagounis: We had been in our own world for more than a month and there was no social media at that time. So when we came back, it was new for us. People were everywhere we went.

Nikopolidis: People in Australia, in Canada, wherever there were Greeks – even at the North Pole! – they raised the flag, celebrated and stood full of pride for the team, putting aside club affiliations. For a month we united the nation.

Charisteas: Even now, 16 years on, every day I get ten to 20 passers-by talking to me about the EURO. I’ll sit down for a coffee somewhere and there’ll be someone next to me who says: "Angelos, I remember that 4 July …"

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