Fifteen years ago one of my best friends was getting married in Athens. I, as all the “gang”, had attended the wedding services in the usual hot Greek summer. Under any other circumstances, the whole event would have been the main talking point for all the guys, but this was a special day for a completely different reason.
The Greek national football team was kicking off its Euro 2004 campaign, which was destined to be one of the greatest fairytale stories in the history of world sports. Otto Rehhagel’s men started their climb to glory and the unfathomable conquest of the coveted trophy in Portugal with an astonishing 2-1 victory against the host nation.
It was the first victory a Greek football team in the finals of a Euro competition, which was in and of itself a huge feat, as it was a first.
Now that was the talking point of the day and night, not Thanos’s wedding with Anna. That match against Portugal was just the start, as about a month after that wedding we would all be celebrating in downtown Athens after our new “Greek Gods” had prevailed over the host team Portugal again with a single goal by Charisteas in the final.
Fifteen years on, and that final of July 4, lives on in the collective memory of the Greek people. It was, and might possibly remain, the pinnacle of achievement in Greek team sports.
The boys of Otto, who had instilled a sense of belief and self-confidence in them, managed to do the unthinkable and “take the scalps” of some of the greatest teams in the world against all odds, including the reigning champions France in the final 8 with 1-0.
The performance in the group stage was better than expected. A 1-0 win over Portugal in the opening game, a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 2-1 defeat by Russia, sent Greece to the quarterfinals.
After the victory against France in the quarterfinals, few thought Greece could repeat the “miracle” against the strong Czech Republic in the semi-finals. But Greece’s opponents suffered a similar fate to that of France. With a dogged, but well-organised defense, Greece kept the Czechs at bay for the whole 90 minutes.
They did the same for the 30-minutes in overtime. In the last minute of extra time, a corner kick found the head of centre-back Traianos Dellas and then the back of the net. Greeks were in heaven. We had advanced to the final!
The recipe which had proved so effective in all the previous matches was followed to a tee in the final match against Portugal. Another header in the 57th minute, this time by centre forward Charisteas, and a whole nation was in delirium. The end of the match saw Greek players fall to the pitch exhausted and in disbelief. Time had stopped. The world was stunned. Greece was the 2004 Euro Champions. The miracle was complete.