Against All Odds: How Greece won the 2004 European Championship as 150/1 outsiders

Otto Rehhagel’s side first concentrated on nullifying their opponents, a tactic that might sound familiar to England fans.

The tactics employed by England in their run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 have been likened to the defence-based approach that won Greece the title in 2004.

When Greece arrived at Euro 2004, they came with an unwanted record of having never won a single game in a major international competition. In fact, they had only ever scored one goal in their major tournament history.

Despite that, after 22 extraordinary days at the 2004 European Championship, it was the Blue and Whites who defied their 150/1 odds and lifted the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Hailed as a victory for the dour over the delightful, is it fair to compare Gareth Southgate's pragmatic style to that of the Greeks?

Here, Planet Sport looks back at the story behind one of the greatest upsets in sporting history.

New era begins in Manchester

October 2001 got off to a rotten start. A militant attack in Kashmir was followed by a plane crash in Russia just three days later - both incidents ending with mass casualties. What's more, the United States was about to go to war in Afghanistan as a response to the September 11 attacks. The sporting world was certainly far less tumultuous at the time. However, it proved a pivotal month for Greek soccer.

The national team had just arrived in Manchester for their final 2002 World Cup qualifying game against England on October 6. The Three Lions needed to dispatch the Greeks who were seen as relatively easy meat considering they were already out. The Ethniki were led by their new manager, Otto Rehhagel, who was looking ahead to his second game in charge.

His debut with Greece came a month earlier and it was one to forget. Rehhagel's side were completely dismantled in a 5-1 defeat to Finland which certainly gave the Greek FA cold feet regarding their choice of manager.

Angelos Charisteas is mobbed after scoring Greece's opener against England
Angelos Charisteas is mobbed after scoring Greece's opener against England

But the experienced German tactician wasn't about to panic after one bad result. Instead, he got to work and began to restore unity in what was a very divided team.

The partisan nature of the top clubs in Greece made it hard for the players to come together and unite under one flag but Rehhagel sought to change that. England's clash with Greece turned out to be an action-packed affair. It also became the game which gave fans confidence in their new manager.

Greece took the lead in the first half courtesy of Angelos Charisteas. The 66,000 fans at Old Trafford shook their heads in disbelief. The Three Lions, managed at the time by Sven-Goran Eriksson, were level on points with Germany in their qualifying group and with only one team progressing to the 2002 World Cup automatically, England needed to win - or at least match - Germany's result against Finland.

With work to do in the second half, England responded as Teddy Sheringham scored the equaliser in the 68th minute. However, their sigh of relief barely lasted 60 seconds as Greece immediately hit back through Themistoklis Nikolaidis.

The Greeks were 2-1 up as the game entered stoppage time. At the same time, Germany were drawing 0-0 with Finland which meant they would be the ones progressing automatically to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

England needed a goal as the clock hit the 93rd minute. The hosts were awarded a free-kick and David Beckham stepped up to take it. His curling effort squeezed into the top corner as the capacity crowd in Manchester exploded in euphoria. England had got the equaliser. They had got the point to take them back to the top of the group and secured their place at the World Cup.

But while England celebrated their qualification, the Greeks were also quietly pleased by their performance. As it turned out, it was the beginning of a journey which would end with Greece conquering Europe.

Qualifying for Portugal

The two years prior to Euro 2004 were arguably some of the best in the history of Greek soccer.

Rehhagel's men may have kicked off their qualifying campaign with successive defeats against Spain and Ukraine, but those turned out to be their only losses for over a year as Greece went on an unprecedented 15-match unbeaten run.

The team went on to win all six of their remaining qualifying games which saw them climb to the top of their group. Greece clinched their place at Euro 2004 having finished a point above Spain and a massive eight points above Ukraine. What's more, the Greeks avenged their earlier defeats courtesy of 1-0 wins over those two nations.

Greece line up ahead of their 2003 European Championship qualifier against Northern Ireland - they won 2-0
Greece line up ahead of their 2003 European Championship qualifier against Northern Ireland - they won 2-0

While the soccer itself might not have been thrilling, the defensively-minded Rehhagel had turned his side into a clean-sheet machine. Out of the eight qualifying games, Greece only scored eight goals - only one more than Albania who finished second from bottom. However, unlike Albania, they only conceded four times.

It was to be a theme that would continue not only throughout 2003 but also throughout the 2004 European Championship, which was right on the horizon.

Only Latvia were bigger underdogs...

After 24 years away, Greece were back at the Euros. But despite their impressive qualifying campaign, nobody was getting carried away. In fact, only Latvia were bigger underdogs than the Greeks, who were priced at 150/1 to go all the way.

Even Greece left-back Takis Fyssas wasn't contemplating a long run in the tournament. He and his fiancee set July 9 as the date for their wedding; five days after the European Championship final.

Greece left-back Takis Fyssas
Greece left-back Takis Fyssas

The player reassured his other half that time wouldn't be an issue. He even told her that he would be back by the start of July to watch the semi-finals and final with his friends before the wedding. Life had different plans.

Having never won a match at any major tournament, the goal for the Greeks was simple - just to win one game. The team had already achieved big things by just qualifying for the tournament but now, they had set their sights on making national history.

Greece vs Portugal: Round one

The opening game of the tournament saw Greece come up against the host nation, Portugal. The Estadio do Dragao in Porto was packed to the brim when the opening ceremony eventually came to an end and Pierluigi Collina got the game underway.

Sensationally, Greece opened the scoring just seven minutes into the match. Georgios Karagounis was the scorer as the home fans were stunned into silence. The players ran over to the small pockets of Greek supporters in jubilation. The Greek commentators went berserk. Yet the coolest man in the ground was Otto Rehhagel. The methodical German didn't offer a fist pump or even a smile. Instead, he urged calm from his men.

Greece celebrate after Georgios Karagounis opens the scoring at Euro 2004
Greece celebrate after Georgios Karagounis opens the scoring at Euro 2004

Greece reached the half-time break with their 1-0 lead intact. Portugal, on the other hand, were clearly flustered and decided to bring on Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco for the second period.

The changes did make a near-immediate impact but not in favour of the hosts. With 50 minutes on the clock, Greece's Giourkas Seitaridis was brought down by Ronaldo with an incredibly clumsy challenge inside the 18-yard box. The penalty was given and Angelos Basinas made no mistake as he successfully found the top, right-hand corner.

Greece were edging towards their first ever win in a major tournament but there was still work to do. Portugal piled on the pressure in the final quarter of the game and got a goal back courtesy of Ronaldo.

Despite this, there wasn't enough time for Portugal to get a second goal. The game was over and Greece had done it. Otto Rehhagel's men had just made history and it was only the first game of the tournament.

Greece had achieved their goal but what now? Could they even contemplate progressing from the group?

A dejected Cristiano Ronaldo at the final whistle after Portugal's opening-day loss
A dejected Cristiano Ronaldo at the final whistle after Portugal's opening-day loss

Eyes set on the quarter-finals

Greece lined up against Spain in their second group game. The Spaniards were familiar foes for Rehhagel's men, having played them twice in the qualifying group; losing the first game and winning the other.

Their clash at Euro 2004 was by no means a classic, however. Greece recovered from going 1-0 down and managed to salvage a draw with a second-half equaliser from Angelos Charisteas.

Angelos Charisteas wheels away after scoring the equaliser against Spain
Angelos Charisteas wheels away after scoring the equaliser against Spain

The Greeks now had four points to their name and needed a win against winless Russia to secure a historic place in the quarter-finals. Surely if they could beat the hosts, they could do the same against lowly Russia?

It was not to be. The normally impenetrable Greek defence folded under the pressure, allowing Russia to take a 2-0 lead inside 17 minutes. Zisis Vryzas got a goal back just before half-time but that's how it finished.

In order for Greece to progress, they needed Portugal to do them a massive favour and get the better of Spain. Such was their luck that year, that was exactly what happened. A solitary goal from Nuno Gomes sealed a 1-0 win for the hosts.

Greece and Spain were locked on four points and couldn't be separated on the head to head result nor overall goal difference. Instead, the deciding factor became the total number of goals scored. Greece weren't known for their goalscoring prowess but in spite of this, they had two more than Spain. That was enough to see them progress to the quarter-finals.

Zidane, Henry and Pires no match for Rehhagel's tactics

Before the tournament, the Greeks were content with simply making the competition. But now Greece were in the last eight and preparing to face the 1998 World Cup winners, France.

The French team, including Zinedine ZidaneThierry Henry and Robert Pires, were big favourites. This was a team that had a global superstar in almost every position. What's more, after an embarrassing group-stage exit at the 2002 World Cup, this was a team desperate to put things right.

Thierry Henry looks dejected as Greece celebrate their quarter-final winner
Thierry Henry looks dejected as Greece celebrate their quarter-final winner

Rehhagel knew the game plan which got them to this point would not be enough to get past the French. With that in mind, the German decided to shake things up. Giourkas Seitaridis was given the task of man-marking French dangerman Henry. The rest of the team would play zonal defence in order to try and keep their opponents at bay.

The change of strategy spectacularly paid off. Greece won 1-0.

The only underdogs in history who nobody wanted to see win

The 150/1 underdogs were now one of four teams left in the competition. All that stood between them and a place in the final was a much-adored Czech Republic side.

While Greece bored fans with their pragmatic and methodical style of play, the Czechs gained newfound popularity with their offensively-minded tactics and free-scoring nature.

Popular or not, the Greeks were not about to change their winning formula. Unlike the French or the Czechs, Greece didn't have superstars. This was a team built from the back and focused primarily on defence.

Rehhagel was a proponent of this style. Even during his Werder Bremen days, he led the club to a Bundesliga title in 1988 and in the process, won the competition with the fewest goals conceded (22). It is a record that's only been beaten once since.

Despite defying the odds at every stage, Greece were far from loved by the soccer community. In fact, they were seen as negative, boring and even accused of killing the spectacle of the European Championship. The Guardian described them as "the only underdogs in history who everyone wants to see get beaten".

Traianos Dellas celebrates scoring against the Czech Republic in the Euro 2004 semi-final
Traianos Dellas celebrates scoring against the Czech Republic in the Euro 2004 semi-final

The game with the Czech Republic was played at the Estadio do Dragao in Porto - the same ground in which Greece got the better of Portugal in the tournament's opener. Strangely enough, the game was also officiated by the same man: Pierluigi Collina.

As before, the Greeks were ruthless defensively. The much-lauded Czech strikeforce was neutralised and failed to open up their stubborn opponents. A goalless first half was followed by a goalless second and the match went to extra time.

Rehhagel's men were the ultimate opportunists during the tournament, converting the few chances they had into goals. When one such opportunity came knocking during extra time with the Czechs, Traianos Dellas was in the right place at the right time to convert it and give the Greeks an unprecedented lead.

Jan Koller buries his head in his hands after missing a crucial chance for the Czech Republic
Jan Koller buries his head in his hands after missing a crucial chance for the Czech Republic

It just so happened that it was during this tournament that the 'silver goal' rule was in effect. That meant that if the scores were no longer level after the first 15 minutes of extra time, the match would be over. Luckily for Greece, Dellas' goal came just before the referee was about to signal the end of those first 15 minutes.

The end of the game was in sight. Czech Republic were out of time. Greece had done it. The 150/1 shots were through to the final.

Greece vs Portugal: Round two

Konstantinos Katsouranis walks out for Greece ahead of the final
Konstantinos Katsouranis walks out for Greece ahead of the final

The Greeks were now one of two nations left in the European Championship. Portugal would be their opponents. The match which kicked off the tournament would now bring the competition to a close.

Greece had already proved that they were capable of beating the Portuguese. However, now things were different - very different.

Ahead of the group stage opener, Greece had no pressure on their shoulders. They had entered the competition as the second biggest underdogs and had nothing to lose.

Twenty-one days later, the situation had changed. The Greek team began to realise this was an opportunity which may never come their way again. While the bookmakers may not have favoured Otto Rehhagel's men, the internal pressure was evident as Greece didn't want to to fall at the final hurdle. They didn't want to waste this once in a lifetime opportunity. They didn't want to go down as 'nearly men'.

A total of 15,000 Greek supporters - still heavily outnumbered by Portuguese fans - arrived at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon; every single one of them believing that Rehhagel and his men could do the impossible.

The final followed a near-identical path to all the other games involving Greece. The opposition enjoyed much of the possession, while Rehhagel's men sat back, defended well and waited for their opportunity.

Angelos Charisteas heads home what turned out to be the winner
Angelos Charisteas heads home what turned out to be the winner

That opportunity arrived early in the second half. Greece were awarded a corner and Angelos Basinas went to take it. As his delivery curled into the penalty box, Angelos Charisteas was there to head the ball past Ricardo. The Greeks were ahead. The stadium was in near-silence. Athens and the millions of fans watching at home erupted in joy.

With 30 minutes still remaining, Greece had to keep their cool. Luckily for them, they had a manager who was the epitome of calm.

As the seconds ticked by, Portugal continuously failed to break their opponents down. Time was running out and the home side were facing a recurring nightmare. However, this time, the nightmare would have major consequences.

Chance after chance went begging as Greece continued to deny their opponents. Soon it was stoppage time. Soon after, it was all over. Greece had become European champions.

The greatest achievement in soccer history?

When the final whistle blew in Lisbon, there was a surge of emotion. The Greeks were in tears. The Portuguese were in tears. And even the one German who masterminded the win managed to break a smile.

Rehhagel had just taken a side of no-hopers from obscurity to becoming champions of a continent. They had just pulled off what many consider the greatest upset in soccer history.

Otto Rehhagel celebrates Greece's Euro 2004 win with Stylianos Giannakopoulos
Otto Rehhagel celebrates Greece's Euro 2004 win with Stylianos Giannakopoulos

Soon after, Greece surged up the standings in the FIFA World Rankings. From 35th spot they jumped all the way up to 14th. The men who returned to their homeland were no longer soccer players. They were revolutionaries. They were heroes. They were legends.

Presidential medals and pictures on postage stamps quickly followed. Awards and accolades rained down on them.

But most importantly, Takis Fyssas did make it to his wedding. The one caveat was that in addition to the 300 invited guests, thousands of fans also attended the ceremony.

At least with the current COVID restrictions on wedding guests, that is not something any of England's young lions will have to worry about should they etch their names into history alongside Greece on July 11.