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When Greece won Euro 2004: Angelos Charisteas on the “miracle” shock victory

Greece Euro 2004
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This Angelos Charisteas feature first appeared in the May 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now!

Otto Rehhagel’s first match as the manager of Greece was in 2001. The game was against Finland in Helsinki, and we lost 5-1. He had only been working with us for three days, but I remember what happened when he sat down with us after the match. ‘I came here because I want to change the way that you work, the mentality of this squad,’ he told us. ‘I need players who play for the group, who play for the Greek national team, not for themselves. Sadly, I have this to say to many of you: it doesn’t matter if you’re good players individually – you need to leave.’

For years before that, it was very difficult for us. Some of our players played for Olympiakos, and some of them played for Panathinaikos. Massive rivals. We could only have success if everyone had a great connection with each other; if we all had the same target. That was the key for Otto Rehhagel.

At first, he was criticised by the Greek media, because some good players weren’t being picked for the national team anymore. But he knew he needed the right characters and the right personalities. He needed to work a lot on our psychology, so that we would give 100 per cent on the pitch and work as a team. He created a small group who thought the same way – that’s why he enjoyed nine years of success as Greece’s coach. He changed a lot of little details, on and off the pitch. He was a clever guy.

A month after the 5-1 defeat in Finland, we played England at Old Trafford in the final qualifier for the 2002 World Cup. In that game, everyone could see the difference Rehhagel had made. Greece were already out of contention for the World Cup, but were very difficult to beat. Everyone played for their team-mates, and we were 2-1 up. It was only thanks to David Beckham’s free-kick in the last second that England went to the World Cup.

Between 2002 and 2004 we achieved some great results to reach Euro 2004 – in our qualifying group, we finished top ahead of Spain and Ukraine. By that stage we knew we had a strong, stable team, but in the history of the national team, Greece had zero victories at major tournaments and had scored only one goal. 

We went to Switzerland for our training camp before Euro 2004, and I remember going to a team meeting. We were told, ‘Hey guys, we need to write down our expectations for the tournament.’ Most of the players said, ‘Try to score a goal’ or ‘Try to win a game for the Greek people.’ Then a few said, ‘Why don’t we do something crazy and say we want to win the trophy!’ Everyone laughed.

That was just the general feeling before the tournament – no one believed that we could go to Portugal and win it. Our first game was against the hosts, and we knew that would be our most important match. The group stage is only three games – you don’t have time to lose. We knew Portugal were under pressure, because everyone expected them to beat ‘easy’ opponents. We had to play freely, with no stress, and show that we were there to enjoy the tournament. 

Otto said the best thing we could do was frustrate the home fans. They would be backing Portugal, so for the first 20 or 30 minutes we had to give extra, to put pressure on the Portuguese team. That was our tactic, and we did exactly that. Giorgos Karagounis scored early on, Angelos Basinas converted a penalty just after half-time and we won 2-1: our first victory at a major tournament. In that first game we had played with confidence and started positively.

After Portugal we took on Spain, and knew they would be waiting for us after seeing how well we did in the first match. They started the game strongly and went in front thanks to Fernando Morientes, but midway through the second half I fired in the equaliser. I was already full of confidence from the Portugal game – I hadn’t scored, but I played well. To score against Spain was a fantastic moment – they were one of the favourites for the tournament with Raul, Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol, maybe one of the hardest defenders I ever played against. If you score against Spain, your confidence goes up again. I thought, ‘Now everything is possible’.

The last 15 minutes of that game were really tough for us. Spain had chances, but thanks to goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis and our defence, we held on for a 1-1 draw. With four points from the first two matches, we knew that suddenly we had a terrific opportunity to reach the next round.

That made our final group game against Russia vital. We needed a draw to go through, but knew we might still qualify with a narrow loss. Unfortunately, the game began badly for us and Russia scored twice in the first 20 minutes. We had to show a reaction.

We pulled a goal back through Zisis Vryzas before half-time, but the game finished 2-1. At the final whistle, no one knew if we were through – we were standing on the pitch, waiting to hear what had happened in the other game between Portugal and Spain. We didn’t know. Then we found out that Portugal had won 1-0, and we were through to the quarter-finals on goals scored ahead of Spain. We had a crazy celebration – already, that was a huge achievement for us. If you are in the same group as Portugal and Spain, you realise how well you have done to progress.

Five days later, we played holders France in the last eight – and it was our best game of the tournament. It wasn’t that we were lucky, or that we had good moments in the match. I’ve watched the game back a few times since, and we played better than France. We had a better game plan and we created some good chances to score. We didn’t play total defence.

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I’ve heard people say we played defensively at that tournament so many times, but if you watch football now, the tactical system is the first thing you have to get right. We played a very good tactical game that night, against superstars such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. You can only beat those players if you set up well tactically, and also if you give 110 per cent. If you want to pull off a miracle, sometimes you have to give all of yourself; even more than 100 per cent.

The truth was that we played better than them that night. France had a bad game, we got a chance and grabbed it. For years before Euro 2004, I had trained with Theo Zagorakis for the national team. He would cross the ball, and I would score. Every day, we practised, practised and practised. That night, Basinas played the ball over to Zagorakis on the right, and he brilliantly beat Bixente Lizarazu. Then Theo crossed the ball into the middle of the penalty area, and I was there in the right place. I did what I knew how to do – I headed the ball into the net. If you see the whole move, it was a wonderful goal.

Beating the reigning European champions was like the final for us. Actually, it felt like we only played finals at Euro 2004. It was a short tournament and we couldn’t afford to lose, or we would have been out. Greece is a small football country, but once we had beaten the French, we started to believe that it was our time. Why couldn’t we reach the final? We believed we could win the tournament.

After the win against France, we watched the news on television and saw everyone back home in Greece going crazy. We didn’t have the information on social media that is available now, but we spoke with our families and they told us that the whole country celebrated in the streets. We felt that energy and the push from all the people back home. We knew we needed to push for them in the semi-final against the Czech Republic.

However, in that game we didn’t play very well. For 90 minutes we defended. But sometimes in football, you have to react in the right way at the right moment. At the end of 90 minutes, with the score still at 0-0, we sat down on the pitch together. ‘Guys, now we have extra time and we have to react, otherwise we won’t reach the final,’ everyone said. ‘We need to show something.’

In extra time, we created three or four chances to score in a short space of time – we hadn’t had one in the whole 90 minutes before that. Sometimes you need to push yourself to make it happen… and then Traianos Dellas scored the Silver Goal in the last seconds of the first half of extra time. We were through to the final.

There, we faced Portugal again, just as we had done in the opening game of the tournament. Having won our group, they had beaten England on penalties in the quarter-finals, then the Netherlands in the final four. Again, everyone knew that they were the favourites. They were at home, they had brilliant individual players and no one expected them to lose to Greece twice at the same tournament. We knew that, one more time, we had to use our power, our tactics and our desire to give something back to the Greek people. 

In Greece, we always have this passion to fight for our country – and we used that feeling to win the game. Of course, we were nervous before the final, but we didn’t have anything to lose. We fought with all our powers, and then we scored at the right moment.

There were moments where everyone sensed we had a chance to score. When we won a corner or free-kick, we knew we were strong and had players who could score with their head. We got a corner in the 57th minute, and I remember it clearly. When Basinas was ready to cross the ball, I said, ‘Now is our time – we need to fight for this, we need to score now.’ Then he crossed it, and I headed the winner.

I felt like a god – a Greek god, from mythology. I don’t know how I sprinted so fast to celebrate! You know, in some moments of your life you don’t really realise what has happened. You’re just living in that moment. I was so happy.

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During my celebration, I revealed a T-shirt of my nephew, who was really young at the time. In every match I played, I had something underneath my shirt – I would write something, or have a picture of someone. It gave me more belief – many players do things like that.

That night, I had my nephew’s picture under my shirt. Actually, it only arrived from Greece just before the final. My cousin brought me the shirt, and the police tried to stop him because he didn’t have the right ticket. When we arrived at the stadium on the team bus, I saw my cousin running and the police trying to stop him – it was a crazy moment! But he managed to give me the shirt, and I said thank you. My nephew is nearly 18 now, and he knows that many people have spoken about him and the shirt. He’s very proud – he’s old enough to realise what happened, and how important that moment was for me and our whole family.

After my goal, Portugal didn’t have a long time to react. They only had half an hour, and we managed to block their top players like Rui Costa, Luis Figo and the young Cristiano Ronaldo. We played so well that night – we deserved to be European champions. When the final whistle blew, we didn’t really believe what had happened. We had made history – we had won a trophy that maybe won’t be possible for our country to win again. It was the most amazing moment of my life. We had shocked the football world.

When we arrived back in Greece after the tournament, hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for us in the streets. We drove to the iconic Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which hosted the first Olympic Games. Normally the journey from the airport takes around 40 minutes – that night, it took almost six hours! There were more than 150,000 people greeting us. I’ll never forget those celebrations.

Scoring that goal in the final changed my life. It wasn’t just one goal that you score for your club – it was a goal that won a trophy for my country, for my people. That is more special, and it will always stay in history, in the hearts of the people. Every day of my life, a few people talk to me about those moments, and how proud they were. 

Even 16 years later, you see how proud all the Greek people are about what we did. What I am now is because of that goal – I still see it a lot, not because I look for it, but because people come up to me and show it! They say, ‘Angelos, look at what you did in 2004!’

Later that year, I was on the Ballon d’Or shortlist with some of my team-mates. That was a great honour. You see all the names, all the great players who have been on that same list over the years, and you realise that your work and sacrifices were all for a good reason. Not only that, but I even beat Cristiano Ronaldo in the vote! Ronaldo was very disappointed when we won the final, but we knew that he was a great player with great potential and a great future. He used that disappointment and has gone on to have an incredible career.

For Greece, though, it was the most beautiful period in our football history. We didn’t just have a good team in 2004, we were a family. We are still good friends and message each other almost every day.

If you look at the history of major tournament football, maybe our success and Denmark at Euro 92 are the two most shocking upsets. For me, Greece was even more of a miracle because we hadn’t won a game before Euro 2004. But we went there, 23 guys, and won the trophy. It was something crazy.

Interview: Chris Flanagan

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