Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Rock Me Charisteas - A Look Back at the Miracle of EURO 2004

The Greece team lifting the trophy at EURO 2004

There are certain subjects worthy of debate which must, practically by law, pop up every time the very word “football” is spoken in any pub the length and breadth of the country, if not the world. One of them must be the “greatest upset of all time”... 

However you judge the selection process, let alone the criteria to even be in the hat in the first place, with the latest Euros coming in less than a months' time, pints must surely be slammed down in clamouring beer gardens, disbelieving spitting out of precious amber nectar optional, while we discuss the 2004 tournament. When several billions to one outsider's, Greece, beat probably one of, if not the best, Portuguese teams ever assembled, on their own turf, to leave Cristiano Ronaldo and chums looking all pony and no trick?

Even the fact they got there at all reads like the beginning of some sort of absolute fairytale- consecutive wins in their final six qualifying matches after a pair of hardly formbook-upsetting defeats to Spain at home then Ukraine away- following a mere 24 year absence from the party. Confidence was so high that the bookies offered odds of 150-1 on the Galanolefki (Blue and Whites) taking home the trophy, only Latvia were given shorter shrift by the rather shifty-looking gods from their lofty (and quite possibly smoky) perch on gambling's Mount Olympus!

How, then, did Otto Rehhagel inspire them to do it? It would seem the chief weapon in their arsenal was the element of surprise, going by coach Ioannis Topalidis' memories of that heady summer working in tandem with the German as part of his staff-

“If someone said we wouldn’t do very well at the Euros, Mr Rehhagel always turned to me and said: ‘They don’t know what we know.’”

Drawn in Group A alongside the hosts they'd so thrillingly tear a strip off of on the biggest stage, future pariahs Russia and Spain (again), few gave them even a sniff of making it out alive. But, given the platform of the all-important first game in front of the watching continent, they stepped up to snaffle a 2-1 win. The goals came courtesy of Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas, only a late penalty by that man Ronaldo reduced the arrears and spared Luiz Felipe Scolari the indignity of a swift return to low-key Gene Hackman lookalike work! The hosting FA having put the task of getting the best out of what their national media had taken to calling the golden generation in his experienced hands...

Little wonder, then, that when the fickle finger of fate put him in what could have been the exact same tight spot by approving noises from their English equivalents, once the opportunity arose he did a runner! But, even all this was a mere appetiser before the main course, a creditable 1-1 draw with Spain thanks to an Angelos Charisteas equaliser. Before the Russians put the tiniest of dampeners on things with a 2-1 win in the final group game, courtesy of Dimitri Kirichenko and his similarly first named mate Bulykin, to ever so slightly spoil the fun.

Despite this, Greece snuck through behind the Portuguese, and so ‘To Piratiko’ (the Pirate Ship) found its sea legs and was off to its first knockout stage. The new nickname was given to them not only for the smash and grab nature of that opening win, but the vessel used as a prop in the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony in typically, cough cough, understated UEFA fashion.  

In the quarter-finals they faced the French connection, whilst the man who'd apparently previously starred in one a good few years earlier was dumping England out on penalties in time- honoured fashion. To, in many a tabloid's eye, encourage Sven-Goran Eriksson towards an exit from the office he'd taken on a mere three years earlier in favour of a bit of Brazilian flair.

Away from all that, though, the boot was on Charisteas's foot again and he used it emphatically to send a few sacre bleus and maybe a few stronger cries of blue merde around the streets of Paris! A semi-final against the Czechs beckoned, as did the chance of more unlikely heroism of the sort everyone who's ever had even the tiniest thought of kicking a ball around surely can't get enough of. The Greeks delivered in predictably bonkers, even by UEFA standards, fashion via the medium of the short-lived silver goal, an unlikely and rather contradictory opposite to its golden cousin.

The concept was that the team which was winning at half-time in extra time was simply given the win without having to trot out for the second forty-five minutes. Happily minus any sulking and one of the losing team or their manager threatening to take their ball home anyway and skulk off for tea in a fit of impotent rage.

And so it was that Rehhagel and his players carried on blazing through the whitest-hot patch they'd ever had. Trianos Dellas the man to ensure the party was very much still going even if they'd had to wait far longer than Portugal for confirmation they'd made it to the Estadio da Luz for the very match nobody, least of all possibly even themselves, ever expected to be around for!

Surely there wouldn't be another ripping up of the script for the hosts and hotly-tipped finalists, in front of a home crowd? But indeed it was so, Charisteas leaving them a touch red-faced near the hour mark to give the upstart pirates the lead. At which point, surely everyone not of an Iberian persuasion wanted to complete a story that would leave Ronaldo blubbering by the final whistle...positively delicious.

Especially given that the target as set by Greece's own FA was simply to “be competitive, represent the country with pride” according to former Newcastle man Nikos Dabizas, who didn't actually even play a minute himself following an injury. Though, rather cruelly for we star-crossed footballing romantics, the latest set of players handed the Herculean task of trying to qualify this year (against the still-reverberating backdrop of corruption in their country's Super League 1) under the auspices of Gus Poyet, fell at the final hurdle on penalties against Georgia in their play- off final. Another plucky band of minnows riding their luck, quite possibly having learnt from the Greek class of 2004, and who will make their tournament debut in 2024.

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