A most unlikely champion
Greece takes Euro 2004 title with team greater than sum of its parts
Monday, 05 July 2004
So the unthinkable has come to pass. In one of the most astounding sequences of events in major tournament history, Greece has had its fairytale ending, pulling off what may well be the biggest upset in international competition.
Like Denmark in 1992, a rank outsider has overcome the odds to capture the European crown. But while the Danes' victory was unexpected -- Denmark, which hadn't even qualified for the tournament, had sent its players on holiday only to recall them after Yugoslavia was ousted due to U.N. sanctions -- it perhaps did not defy belief to the same degree as the Greeks' victory.
Denmark boasted two world class players in Peter Schmeichel and Brian Laudrup, who teamed with the likes of Bent Christensen and Flemmin Povlsen, who played regularly in the Bundesliga at a time when limits on foreigners made gaining a spot in a top European league very difficult.
Arguably, the only world class player among the Greeks is Giourkas Seitaridis, and while they do have their share of foreign-based players (Georgios Karagounis, Traianos Dellas, Zisis Vryzas, Stylianos Giannakopoulos, Themistoklis Nikolaidis and Angelos Charisteas), none are regulars in the top flight. Add the fact that winning a 16-team tournament is, if only statistically, a tougher proposition than the eight-team competition it was in 1992, and the magnitude of what Greece has achieved becomes even more apparent.
It's sad that Greece's underdog run failed to capture the imagination of fans outside of the Balkans. In fact, many complained about its conservative tactics, its defend-and-counter approach, as if Greece should have tried to emulate Brazil to please the critics.
The truth is that such accusations of "negative football" should be aimed only at countries packed with the kind of offensive talent upon which their teams are based. It's patently unfair to demand entertainment from this Greek squad. And, bottom line, no matter how Greece's approach did or did not please the eyes, it won, which is the first thing anyone will remember about this tournament.
Coach Otto Rehhagel's men played to their strengths, they found a system that allowed each man to overachieve and, along the way, beat France, the Czech Republic and Portugal (twice). That's what matters. Demanding that Greece dazzle and entertain would have been like demanding that Britney Spears dunk a basketball -- theoretically possible but grossly unrealistic.
Before the book is firmly closed on Euro 2004, spare a thought for Portugal, a team that looked like it had finally conquered the demons of its past and appeared to be playing from strength. The Golden Generation will, most likely, retire empty-handed at the international level. For such a talented bunch, it's hard not to empathize, at least a little bit.
With that in mind, it's time to hand out some awards, based only on what we saw at Euro 2004.
COACH OF THE TOURNAMENT
Otto Rehhagel (Greece)
The only evidence you need is that his game plan worked. The German coach embraced Greece, the players embraced him, and for four weeks, average players performed far beyond their abilities.
Honorable mention Karel Bruckner (Czech Republic)
The Czechs played arguably the best soccer seen in the tournament, overwhelming opponents with strength, work rate and attack-minded creativity.
Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Once again, he saved the impossible
Honorable mention Petr Cech (Czech Republic)
Giourkas Seitaridis (Greece)
It's rare for right backs to have such an obvious influence on the outcomes of games. He managed to do so on three different occasions.
Honorable mention Thomas Helveg (Denmark)
Ricardo Carvalho (Portugal)
A giant at the back, he did not put a foot wrong after winning the starting position.
Honorable mention Jaap Stam (Netherlands)
Traianos Dellas (Greece)
Great leadership, great defending and a timely goal to send Greece to the final.
Honorable mention Alessandro Nesta (Italy)
Ashley Cole (England)
Reached the next level during the tournament, excelling in attack and on defense.
Honorable mention Marek Jankulovski (Czech Republic)
Karel Poborsky (Czech Republic)
As effective as he was in 1996, he is enjoying a productive swan song.
Honorable mention Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Work rate, heart and a stunning goal.
Honorable mention Thomas Gravesen (Denmark)
Tomas Galasek (Czech Republic)
The glue that held the midfield together.
Honorable mention Frank Lampard (England)
Luis Figo (Portugal)
Pace, power, vision and, for better or worse, loads of personality.
Honorable mention Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic)
Wayne Rooney (England)
He may be overhyped, but he made a big impact in a short period of time - and he's still just 18.
Honorable mention Angelos Charisteas (Greece)
Milan Baros (Czech Republic)
Stellar until the semifinal. He converted the Czechs' possessions into goals.
Honorable mention Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Netherlands)
Manuel Rui Costa (Portugal)
Accepted the super-sub role with dignity and scored important goals from the bench. He proved that he is a true team player with the heart of a champion, and seeing him cry in the minutes after the final was one of the tournament's most moving moments.
MISSING IN ACTION
1. David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry (France) - Weren't they supposed to be the most feared strike partnership in the tournament?
2. Francesco Totti (Italy) - He only has himself to blame for the boneheaded spitting incident.
3. David Beckham (England) - Long season took an undue toll. We expected more.
To the referees, who failed to make any major mistakes, especially from the quarterfinals on (unless you're English, in which case you believe Urs Meier is the spawn of Satan).
THREE TO WATCH
1. Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
2. Johann Vonlanthen (Switzerland)
3. Xabi Alonso (Spain)
GOALS OF THE TOURNAMENT
1. Rui Costa v England
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Italy
3. Jon Dahl Tomasson v Sweden -