Remembering Greece’s shock Euro 2004 triumph 20 years later

If Turkey or Switzerland are looking for added inspiration that they could do the seemingly impossible and win Euro 2024, they don’t need to look far.

It’s been 20 years since Greece turned up at the European Championship hoping to score just one goal. Instead, against all odds and common sense, they left Portugal as champions. It’s still considered the greatest upset in the competition’s history, and even if either Turkey or Switzerland were to win this edition in Germany, it still wouldn’t come close to what Greece achieved at Euro 2004.

Switzerland have reached at least the round of 16 at the past six major tournaments and knocked France out of the last Euros. Turkey finished third at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008.

For Greece, however, what they did came completely out of the blue.

“We cannot kid ourselves and say we were expecting it,” defender Nikos Dabizas tells ESPN. “Before that, Greece had qualified for the Euros in Italy in 1980 and then the World Cup in America in 1994. We had a difficult group in the USA and faced Nigeria, Bulgaria and Argentina and we didn’t manage to score a goal.

“It was quite heavy to accept. That legacy, in a negative sense, was hunting us and when we qualified 10 years after that we all sat together and said, ‘Listen boys, we have to be competitive and represent our country in the best possible way.’

“We wanted to score a goal and win a game. Do something better than what we had done in America. This was what was in our minds. That was our honest approach.”

Given what had happened in the U.S. — conceding 10 goals and scoring none in three lopsided defeats — there was little expectation that things would be better at the Euros, particularly after Greece were drawn in a group alongside Spain, Russia and hosts Portugal. The players were also battling an attitude at home that the national team wasn’t as important to fans as their fierce club loyalties to Olympiacos and Panathinaikos.

All that began to change, though, with a shock win over Portugal in the opening game. A 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo scored the first of his 130 international goals, but Greece held on to win 2-1.

“The biggest thing we had as a group was that we were very pragmatic and very realistic in the way we approached the games,” Dabizas recalls. “We had to play the opening game against the hosts, Portugal, with all their big stars like Luis Figo and a young Cristiano Ronaldo. Then it was Spain.

“We were very strong in our approach and played to our capacity. We didn’t try to do things that we could not do and didn’t represent us. We had a big fighting spirit between us and this was the main element that helped us.”

Victory over Portugal was followed by a creditable draw against Spain but, losing 2-0 to Russia in the final group game, there was a point at which Greece were heading out. They were only saved by Portugal topping Spain and sending Greece through as group runners-up.

The reward was a quarterfinal against France. One member of the squad was due to get married soon afterward and took the decision to leave the arrangements as they were while others kept their plans for post-tournament vacations in place.

After all, they had no chance against the holders, led by two of the best players in the world in Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, and in all likelihood would be back home soon.

“One of our teammates was getting married,” Dabizas says. “It was scheduled before the tournament and then he had to make a decision. He left it because we thought we probably won’t get through against Zidane, Henry, [Robert] Pires and [Patrick] Vieira. We thought it was the end of the road. We were very proud to qualify from the group but it was France, you know? It wasn’t that we had given up but we left our plans for the summer the same. In the end, he had an excuse not to get married!”

A second-half goal from tall, physical centre-forward Angelos Charisteas and a battling defensive display was enough to win 1-0 and dump France out. It also prompted the first criticisms of Greece’s pragmatic style and complaints that under 65-year-old German coach Otto Rehhagel they were basic, limited and boring.

“We didn’t care about that,” Dabizas says. “We knew our strengths. We were not Brazil. We were not France. We had to adapt our approach to a style that suited us. We knew we had to be strong defensively and after that we had to be very efficient going forward, on the counterattack and with set pieces.

“You wouldn’t ask a Pep Guardiola team to play long balls. For us to play in a different way would have been suicide. It didn’t suit us. We didn’t worry about the criticism.”

Just happy to be there up until that point, beating France became the launch pad for what was to follow. They beat the Czech Republic 1-0 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with Portugal in the final. And just like they had done to Zidane and Henry, Greece nullified Ronaldo and Figo and another Charisteas goal from a corner — their only attempt on target — earned another 1-0 win. When the final whistle blew, Greece were champions of Europe.

“It was pure joy,” Dabizas remembers. “It was something in the brain that took over and you jump like a kid. We were like kids, jumping to each other. When we came back to Greece, it was unbelievable.

“There were people all the way from the airport to the city centre. For 20 miles they were outside on the street waiting for us with flags. When we got to Panathaikios stadium, it was a moment I’ll never forget. That was the first moment I realised what was happening in the country. When we came back we realised what we had done and what we had achieved.”

Through to the quarterfinals of Euro 2024, Turkey and Switzerland are chasing something similar. Outsiders in the last eight among heavyweights like Germany, France, England and Spain, they are flying the flag for the underdogs that Greece carried so spectacularly 20 years ago.

“It’s something very rare and I don’t think it can ever happen again,” Dabizas says. “Surprises tend to go missing in modern football. What we did, it will never fade. it’s something to make us very proud.”