With the European Championships only a few months away, and seemingly always expanding, the opportunities for ‘minnow’ nations to make an impact increases correspondingly.
In this article we will take a look back at the biggest unexpected overachievers of tournaments gone by, including some winners, some nearly-winners, a minnow nation in the true sense of the word and take a look at their journey and some of the players who made it possible.
Perhaps a success story that only Leicester City winning the Premier League or Montpellier winning Ligue 1 can compare to. A side which had only qualified for two major tournaments previously in its history, without winning a single game, showed up to Euro 2004, their first Euros in 24 years as huge outsiders and remarkably, won it.
Greece had the worst record at both major tournaments they had qualified for – Euro 80 and USA 94 – totalling one draw and five losses as they propped up their group on both occasions.
Only Latvia, a side making their first, and to date only, major tournament appearance, were ranked below Greece going into the competition, as the bookmakers gave the eventual winners odds of 150/1 outright pre-tournament.
Greece’s coach, Otto Rehhagel was a manager famed for a long, successful spell at Werder Bremen in which he adopted an eye-catching attacking mentality. However at the tournament he went against his own philosophy and made Greece a defensive force to be reckoned with, stating he just had to work with the resources he had at his disposal in the most efficient way possible.
Despite a sketchy group stage performance, edging through on goals scored ahead of Spain, their performance in the knockout round was faultless with three straight 1-0 wins over holders France, highly-fancied Czech Republic and hosts Portugal in the final.
Dubbed the most boring winners in the competition’s history, it was a system that worked for them and ultimately rewarded them with deserved silverware that will go down as the greatest moment in Greek footballing folklore.
KeyPlayer – Theodoros Zagorakis
Despite not scoring a single goal at the tournament, to the naked eye it may seem peculiar that the 32-year old midfielder was named as the Player of the Tournament, but in truth, nobody had any complaints.
As captain, Zagorakis lead by example in the centre of the pitch and also influenced all of Greece’s games with his wonderful technical ability which resulted in him lifting the trophy in Lisbon.
Despite being the most experienced player in the squad at the time, he’d had an uneventful club career up to that point, before earning himself a lucrative deal to Serie A on the back of the performances that summer.
Luckily for Greece, he found his best purple patch at the perfect time and was instrumental throughout their amazing run, especially his excellent assist for their winner against France in the quarter-final.
Cult Hero – Angelos Charisteas
Greece’s top scorer at Euro 2004 can also take claim in being the cult hero whose goal won them the trophy.
His header against Portugal in the final was enough to earn them a 1-0 win, as was his winner against reigning European champions France in the quarter-final.
Breakthrough Star – Giourkas Seitaridis
A large number of the squad were unrecognisable names to the average football fan prior to 2004 and many earned big breaks as a result of their performances in Portugal that summer, but none more so than right-back Seitaridis.
Just 23 at Euro 2004, he was playing for Panathinaikos and had never played outside of Greece until Champions League winners Porto came calling after his performances in Greece’s infamously solid back four earned him a place in the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
Despite interest from Real Madrid, he joined the European champions and later went on to make big money moves to Dynamo Moscow and Atletico Madrid. Unfortunately multiple injuries affected his career to the extent that he retired from the game aged just 31.
Leader: Traianos Dellas
Despite Zagorakis doing a stellar job as captain for Greece, Dellas was a leader in a more tactical sense as he marshalled the Greek backline excellently especially in the knockout phase, keeping three consecutive clean sheets, as well as scoring the semi-final winner against Czech Republic.
Dellas was on of the few Greeks already turning out for a ‘big club’ at the time, namely Roma. Oddly enough his post-Euro 2004 career went in the opposite direction compared to many of his teammates with a string of injuries immediately after the tournament resulting in him leaving Roma and returning to Greece where he saw out the rest of his career even though he should have been one of the most sought after central defenders in Europe.
Decisive Moment: The introduction of the ‘Silver Goal’
From 2002, UEFA introduced the Silver Goal as an alternative to the Golden Goal which had decided the two previous European Champions, France in 2000 and Germany in 1996.
The difference between gold and silver was based on time. If a side was winning at half time in extra time, they would win via the silver goal, if it was level the second half would be played in its full 15 minutes, regardless of either team scoring.
Within 18 months of its introduction the powers that be had decided that the rule which was introduced to iron out the kinks in the Golden Goal would be scrapped after the tournament.
Luckily for Greece they benefited greatly from the Silver Goal in their semi final win over Czech Republic with Dellas scored in first half stoppage time in extra time.