“We wanted to end the miracle”: how Greece won Euro 2004 against all odds | Greece
Seventeen years later, Nikos Dabizas is struggling to remember when Markus Merk whistled full time at Estádio da Luz and changed the lives of an entire team.
“The hard drive crashed,” he says. “There is no memory of it. These two hours after the final are blank, you just have to look back on television to realize what was going on. Back then you couldn’t think, you couldn’t remember things, you were just living the moment and the river of emotions. It sounds strange, but he was so big we couldn’t stand him.
No one has yet succeeded in imitating Greece’s feat. Otto Rehhagel’s players came to Euro 2004 with limited international pedigree and sidelined everyone in a campaign which, while patently anomalous in a larger context, was no coincidence at all. ‘time. Beating Portugal in the euphoria of the host country once in a tournament could be luck: doing it twice is another matter and, given their other scalps included France and a wonderful side from the Czech Republic, there is no doubt who was the best team in Europe. This summer.
“If someone said we wouldn’t do very well at the Euro, Mr Rehhagel would always look to me and say, ‘They don’t know what we know. Bundesliga winner Rehhagel, who didn’t seem to need the hassle when he held a seemingly cursed job at 63 in 2001, passed on to a seemingly unlucky group. While the rigor instilled by Rehhagel, a politically impervious figure who had beset Greek football, was the main factor in their success, there were more complex forces behind a triumph of cultural translation and assimilation.
Topalidis was an unknown coach, born and raised in Germany, who had worked in amateur football and recruited for Cologne. Shortly after Rehhagel’s first game at the head, a horrific 5-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Finland, Topalidis received an unexpected call. It was Rehhagel who requested a meeting in Berlin and explained that he needed a right-hand man.
Topalidis’ most important function, as a person straddling Greek and German cultures, was to make sure that the players and the manager understood each other. An obvious part of this was the ability to filter the message, given that Rehhagel’s frankness might not have had the effect it intended otherwise.
“The cultures of the countries are quite different, but it was about football: Mr Rehhagel was a great man and took care of it,” Topalidis explains. “It was very important that we got the message across. On the tactical side, I always explained what the coach wanted. But sometimes when he was criticizing the players maybe I made him a little less harsh. The two languages are very different and sometimes they have to be changed a bit. “
The two sat side by side in Greece’s next game, the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in which David Beckham saved England to death. Dabizas explains that players quickly embraced Rehhagel’s ways, even allowing for eccentricities. “We had a guy in front of us who worked his way,” he says. “And if he was making decisions that were wrong, or a little weird at the time, we knew it was his decision alone and we trusted him. The way he operated in his own reality was a big boost for us. “
Even though Rehhagel went on to qualify Greece for Euro 2004, overcoming a poor start with six straight wins, including a resounding win over Spain in Zaragoza, there were deep insecurities to be shed. In the country’s last major tournament appearance, they weren’t better than the tourists at USA 94. They lost three times, failed to score and conceded 10. “People were expecting something similar to happen in Portugal, ”Topalidis says.
For Dabizas, that summed up a broader stance that had held back Greece. “The national team had never been at the top of the Greek football pyramid,” he said. “It was not the players’ priority in life to play for their country and the media did not pay much attention to it. Play in England [for Newcastle and Leicester] and seeing how they approached their team, the disappointment was even greater.
“So the only goal we had at Euro 2004 was to be competitive, to represent the country with pride and to improve this terrible record in America. We had the inner belief that we could do it, but we didn’t. ‘didn’t really have the goal of qualifying in our squad, it didn’t seem like a realistic approach. We were 100% determined to change the way we approach this World Cup. “
The lack of expectation was due, in part, to being placed in a quartet alongside Portugal and Spain. But they immediately beat the Portuguese with a smart and courageous performance. Angelos Charisteas then brought them a draw with Spain but, Greece being Greece, the loss to a modest side from Russia saw them progress on edge.
“It was the most difficult game,” said Dabizas. “Russia was when we had to carry a lot of weight on our shoulders in terms of the importance of the game.” Dabizas himself did not play a minute of the Greek campaign; he was vice-captain but suffered a minor groin injury before the tournament and, although in good shape after the opener, couldn’t make his way into Rehhagel’s lineup.
“I was unlucky in one way but maybe lucky in another way, who knows?” he said, generously. “If I had been involved, maybe I would have been a disaster and maybe Greece wouldn’t have won the Euro.”
Dabizas believes that this kind of collective spirit, nurtured with care by Rehhagel, helped bring Greece to fruition. Part of the wonder is that their players really had other things going on. Ahead of the quarter-final against a star-filled France, team members packed their bags and confirmed their travel plans for vacations and weddings. It seems a probable story, but Dabizas confirms that the plans had to be revamped in a hurry.
“Of course it’s true,” he said. “People were having vacations and we didn’t think we would stay there. It was sort of preposterous: people were planning to get married, going on vacation, and had to reschedule. But against what? Another week? Longer?”
The wider Greek world barely knew what to think when they won, with Charisteas scoring while Zinedine Zidane and a frustrated Thierry Henry were called off. “Every step of the way, it was, ‘It’s amazing, but it’s as far as we come,” said Christopher Andre Marks, a Greek American whose documentary, King Otto, about their feat is released on Monday. “But the miracle continued; the dream never ceased to spread.
Topalidis felt that beating France kicked off Greece. “That’s when I started to believe and think, ‘We can really win this,’” he says. The rest is history: Traianos Dellas beat the Czechs with a silver goal in Porto; then Charisteas, the unlikely star of the tournament, suspended in the air to stun Portugal and unleash that glorious mayhem that Dabizas can’t quite imagine.
“Once we got to the final, we wanted to finish the miracle,” he says. “It wasn’t just about participating then. In the end, we beat them twice and that was a clear indication that we were a better team: not the most talented team, but the most efficient team.
Such terms can be applied in a pejorative manner. This is often the case for Greece: As the tournament progressed, Rehhagel’s unabashed pragmatism became more and more marked, and an analysis of the Guardian – “the only underdogs in history that all the world wants to be beaten “- was characteristic of attitudes abroad.
“I don’t find it boring because it’s the truth,” Dabizas says of such criticism. “But that doesn’t take anything away from us. If you told 1,000 people in England that you would win Euro 2020 like that, 1,000 would sign right away. Of course, we weren’t Brazilians, Spaniards or Germans: we had to be realistic, focus on defense, take advantage of set pieces and be very effective on blocking.
Greece has never built on its success. “When everything is under control, we tend to lose control,” says Dabizas, but the memories have helped console a nation through economic disaster.
“It was something that transcended sports,” says Marks. “The Greeks first felt relevant on the world stage in the modern era. It was a unifying moment and, given that the last decade and a half has been so difficult, it spawned the kind of joy and nostalgia that carries you through tough times. There is the feeling of, “At least we had this moment. “
They certainly did. “What we have achieved is something that only happens once,” Topalidis says. Dabizas agrees: “Believe me, this won’t happen again. I say that with all my heart. It was one of the greatest miracles, if not the greatest, of European international football.
King Otto will be available on DVD and digitally from July 5 courtesy of 101 Films