How Greece won Euro 2004: Dellas fought fires as pragmatic underdogs shocked Europe

This is the latest in our fortnightly series about the 16 triumphant teams in the European Championship before the 17th edition is played in Germany this summer.

We’ve looked at the Soviet Union in 1960, Spain in 1964, Italy in 1968, West Germany in 1972, Czechoslovakia in 1976, West Germany again in 1980, France in 1984, the Netherlands in 1988, Denmark in 1992, Germany in 1996 and France in 2000. This time, it’s Greece’s memorable triumph in 2004.


An entirely unexpected triumph for a side that had previously enjoyed very little international success. Greece had only qualified for two tournaments before this: Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup. From those six games, they had collected a single point — a goalless draw in Euro 1980 against a rotated West Germany side who only needed to avoid defeat to top the group.

No one expected anything from Greece in 2004 and they weren’t even expected to put up much of a fight in the tournament opener against hosts Portugal — but they deservedly won 2-1 thanks to an early goal from playmaker Georgios Karagkounis and Angelos Basinas’ second-half penalty, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the 93rd-minute consolation. That wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

“The 1992 Danish team is a great example for us,” said regular substitute Demis Nikolaidis before the second group game against Spain. “They did amazing things even though they were far from being the best squad. I don’t think that team was better than our team today.”

The manager

Before taking charge of Greece in 2001, Otto Rehhagel had never worked as a national coach and had never coached outside his home nation of Germany. He was as German as they come, having played in the first-ever round of Bundesliga games in 1963 and subsequently took charge of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. His most notable spells came with Werder Bremen, with whom he won two Bundesliga titles, and then Kaiserslautern, whom he sensationally guided to the Bundesliga title in 1998 after earning promotion from the second tier the season before.

At the time, many in Greece were sceptical about his appointment given Rehhagel’s lack of familiarity with Greek football or the Greek language — something he admitted was more of a problem than he had anticipated. Some suspected Rehhagel was taking semi-retirement in a warmer climate. But his slightly old-school manner, focusing on player strengths and not spending too much time on tactical dissections of the opposition, seemed to work excellently. Admired in Greece as much for his off-pitch management as his tactical genius, today he is an honorary citizen of Athens.

Otto Rehhagel was a three-time Bundesliga winner before guiding Greece to Euro 2004 glory (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)


This is a funny one. In Vasilis Sambrakos’ excellent book The Miracle, there are constant references to Rehhagel’s lack of tactical planning. It quotes backup defender Stelios Venetidis saying “Rehhagel did not much place much emphasis upon tactics”. Another reserve defender, Nikos Dabizas, said, “He wasn’t one to overanalyse and change tactics”. Theo Zagorakis, the captain, said, “We didn’t practise tactics much in training.”

Yet Greece won this tournament partly because they used an old-school man-marking approach that opponents desperately struggled to cope with. While the approach wasn’t new, it was seemingly a surprise to the players charged with breaking down Greece’s system.

Rehhagel, for all his apparent lack of interest in tactics, based his formation entirely around that of the opposition, using a 4-5-1 against a team playing one centre-forward and a 5-4-1 against a side with a strike duo.

Centre-back Traianos Dellas was always the spare man, with one or two other centre-backs focused on stopping a centre-forward. Georgios Seitaridis was a right-back by trade but was sometimes used as a bonus centre-back, and his skill set was perfect for nullifying Thierry Henry in the quarter-final win over France. That was the game where Greece’s man-marking was most obvious, with Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires drifting around but unable to find any space away from Greek defenders.

Rehhagel offered little guidance for Greece’s attacking play, essentially trusting his players to find solutions themselves. He was keen for his players not to take risks on the ball in deep positions and they got the ball forward quickly — to put things kindly — but there were no set patterns of play in attack, with a reliance on set plays for goals.

There also seems to have been an informal agreement among players that they would attempt to play out a first half 0-0, then push forward in the second half when their opponents were tired or frustrated. That approach worked excellently in the knockout stage. Their setup in the final is depicted below.

Key player

More than any other European Championship success, this was a team effort. Midfielder Zagorakis received plenty of acclaim, finishing fifth in the Ballon d’Or — largely because he was the side’s captain, you suspect — while three-goal Angelos Charisteas was voted into 11th.

But the truly outstanding player was Dellas, who mopped up brilliantly at the back in a manner vaguely comparable to Matthias Sammer eight years beforehand. He was a genuine sweeper, a permanent free man at the back, although most of his decisive contributions came in the air, rather than on the ground like Sammer.

He also very obviously lacked Sammer’s playmaking ability, constantly thumping the ball aimlessly clear and hoofing balls towards the strikers whenever pressured, but Dellas was almost unbeatable in his penalty box. He was particularly good in the semi-final win over the Czech Republic, when he was tasked with acting as the spare man while the more diminutive Michalis Kapsis focused on the towering Jan Koller. But then, when the ball was wide, they would switch roles and Dellas would mark Koller, coping excellently against the 6ft 8in (202cm) target man.

On top of that, he scored the winner against the Czechs in extra time, heading home a right-wing corner in what was officially the last ‘silver goal’ — if a team was leading after either half of extra time, the game would end. However, since Dellas’ goal came on 105 minutes, right on the stroke of half-time in extra time, it was effectively a golden goal.

Traianos Dellas (No 5) leads the celebrations after Greece’s semi-final win over the Czech Republic (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

You might be surprised to learn…

Before the final, there was a minor scandal in Portugal when it was reported that the referee for the final, Germany’s Markus Merk, a dentist by trade, counted Rehhagel and his family as patients. This inevitably prompted concerns amongst Portugal fans that Merk might favour his compatriot.

“Thank you for the question,” Merk responded sarcastically when quizzed before the final. “If we follow this (logic), then there are no referees in the future because every referee has lots of matches in a foreign country.

“There is nothing unusual in having a German referee and a German coach. I have had about 5,000 dental patients registered in my career — some have even been Portuguese and Greek. I have five favourite restaurants as well: and one is Portuguese and one is Greek.”

The final

A repeat of the opening game, with Greece once again shocking hosts Portugal with a one-goal victory.

The game was, in truth, rather flat, with both sides probably suffering from nerves. Portugal didn’t seem any more prepared for the challenge of the Greek man-marking the second time around, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo staying out wide rather than alternating their positions to lose their markers. With Deco struggling to escape the attentions of Kostas Katsouranis, Portugal offered little creativity until the 32-year-old Rui Costa, in his final international appearance, came off the bench to create a couple of half-chances.

Greece’s performance in the final was probably their least impressive of the knockout stage, although it should be remembered that their opponents had home advantage, had an extra day of rest after their semi-final, and were already in Lisbon whereas Greece were travelling down from Porto. Greece got the job done with relatively few worries.

Greece’s Takis Fyssas cradles the trophy (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

The decisive moment

For the third game running, Greece won courtesy of a header from a right-wing delivery. Like in the quarter-final, the goalscorer was Charisteas. Like in the semi-final, it came from a corner.

Despite being identified as a potential weakness throughout the tournament, Portugal’s goalkeeper Ricardo performed very well, saving and scoring a penalty in the quarter-final shootout win over England. But his attempt to claim Basinas’ corner was feeble and Charisteas had the simple task of nodding in.

Were they clearly the best team?

It’s fair to suggest that if you played these knockout stage matches again, you probably wouldn’t get three Greece wins. The Czech Republic were probably the most complete side at the tournament, boasting a brilliant strike partnership of Koller and Milan Baros, a huge amount of midfield creativity, and the best goalkeeper at the tournament, Petr Cech. However, when Pavel Nedved went off injured against Greece in the semi-final, they lost belief.

Aside from the fortune of the best side being deprived of their best player, Greece didn’t need to ride their luck. They weren’t regularly depending upon last-ditch clearances, spectacular saves or the woodwork to keep their clean sheet intact. The pattern of their games involved them being rarely troubled at 0-0, then scoring, then successfully killing the game without resorting to too much timewasting or gamesmanship.

They were unlikely winners, certainly, and needed to play defensively to stand a chance, but there have been many more flukey European Championship successes than this.

In the knockout stage, Greece defeated the defending champions, the best team, and then the host nation: 1-0, 1-0 and 1-0. A few weeks after Porto had stunned Europe with their Champions League success, this was a year for the underdogs. “I have united Greeks in a way beyond any politician,” claimed Rehhagel. He remains the only foreign coach to win the European Championship.

(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

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