Euro 2004, ten years on
The 2014 World Cup starts on 12th June. Coincidentally, this is the tenth anniversary of the start of Euro 2004. It’s not an anniversary that is likely to be marked with any great fanfare, as everyone will have their eyes on Brazil, but it’s definitely something which should be reflected on now that a decade has passed.
Euro 2004 has become Greece’s Tournament. From the shock win in the opening game against Portugal in Porto to the shock win in the final against Portugal in Lisbon, it has become defined by the miraculous achievements of a footballing minnow, who had never threatened to win a major tournament before and haven’t threatened to since. It is often compared to Denmark’s feat of 1992, but while Denmark failed to qualify for that championship, there was no denying they had a talented squad regardless, with players like Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup and, er, John Jensen. Greece’s success came completely out of thin air.
This was Greece’s first major tournament appearance for a decade, since they were sent packing at the 1994 World Cup group stage. They hadn’t appeared in a European Championship finals since 1980. They had topped their group in qualifying with 18 points, surprisingly beating Spain by a point after a 1-0 win over them in Zaragoza. This had been a remarkable comeback after losing the first two games of the group, first at home to Spain and then in Kiev against Ukraine. But while this was impressive, there was no sign that they would go on and challenge for overall success in Portugal.
Even at the end of the group stage, it seemed unlikely: they had pipped Spain on goals scored, having drawn with them and lost their final match against Russia. They were due to face France in the quarter-finals, who themselves had come through a tough group with England, Croatia and Switzerland. Even after a surprising win in that game, surely Greece could not get past the Czech Republic, in formidable form having won every game so far. And even after a silver goal win over the Czechs, surely Portugal would triumph in the final.
It was one shock after another for them. And yet the margins were clearly very fine: they won all three of those games 1-0. After all, even the first win over Portugal had only been by one goal, albeit after a late consolation from Cristiano Ronaldo. Granted, this was perhaps the pattern of the tournament – Portugal only had won by more than one goal once (a 2-0 win over Russia) – but it shows how different it could have been.
I’ve seen (and indeed made) a few snarky comments suggesting the Greek players may have been using performance-enhancing drugs. If they were, it would make sense – a dramatic boost in performance by a group of players previously considered to be very average whose most exceptional attributes in the tournament were physicality and endurance. But it overlooks the tight margins of victory in every game. Had the Czechs found a goal in normal time in the semi-finals, Greece’s run to the semis would have been just a quirky footnote in the history of the competition, probably written more into the classic narratives of Spain and France underperforming.
Had they found a way through the Greek barricades, the Czech Republic would have been strong favourites to win the tournament. This was the pinnacle for that generation of players – Nedved, Rosicky, Baros, Koller and Galacek all at or near their peaks, with the addition of the experienced Poborsky and a young Petr Cech. They had beaten Latvia, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark before the semi-final with Greece. It seemed inevitable that they would go on to challenge Portugal in the final. Overall, they were probably the best team in the tournament, but they were undone by one set piece, a silver goal that was effectively a golden goal.
Some would argue that the hosts had a side capable of matching them. And yes, it is true that they had seen off Russia and Spain in the groups, before knocking out the fancied sides of England and the Netherlands before that. But they were never entirely convincing. As well as the defeat to Greece in the opening game, it had taken a late Helder Postiga equaliser to save the game against England and they nearly threw it away in the second half of extra time; some say that if Urs Meier had been more generous, there wouldn’t have been any extra time. And while the Netherlands had a strong team, they had already been beaten by the Czechs in the group stage and needed penalties to beat Sweden.
Circumstance did make Portugal’s run slightly easier. Italy’s elimination in the groups at the hands of Denmark and Sweden in that infamous 2-2 draw kept one very good side out of the running, while Germany had also unexpectedly fallen at the first hurdle. It was a competition with a very high standard of teams – certainly more than eight were capable of winning, so it was inevitable that some would not make it through – but looking back at the results leaves an overriding feeling that perhaps the most talented sides flopped.
This was a tournament defined by underperformance, symbolised by Greece’s unlikely run. They should never have gotten anywhere near winning that tournament, and yet down went the fancied runners, many at the hands of the Greeks themselves. You can’t say they didn’t earn it, but for a tournament which saw so many great teams reach a point which theoretically should have been their peak time period, it does leave a slightly disappointing legacy.
The example of England captures this perfectly. This should have been the moment for their “Golden Generation”. This was the only major tournament where Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes were all selected: Lampard had worked his way into the reckoning since the 2002 World Cup, Gerrard had missed it due to injury, and Scholes would retire from international football after the tournament due to his increasing marginalisation on the left flank. They were arguably the three most talented midfielders England has ever had, and yet with Sven-Goran Eriksson at the helm, the most English foreign manager the FA could have hired, it was wasted.
Even with Rio Ferdinand absent due to a drugs ban, the Euro 2004 England squad should have been its most powerful: pre-decline Owen, Campbell and Beckham, pre-fear Rooney, pre-everyone-hating-him John Terry. But Sven fudged it. He clearly liked Owen Hargreaves, but only brought him off the bench. The messy midfield formation just didn’t quite pay off. I appreciate there was never going to be an easy solution, but what Sven tried to do, and his lack of willingness to drop one of his better players for the sake of the overall team, set the tone for the next few years, continuing long after his departure – great players were wasted because square pegs were put in round holes.
The coup de grace came when the explosive Rooney was injured early on against Portugal. Sven’s answer was to bring on Darius Vassell. Granted, Vassell was quite good at that point, but he’s still Darius Vassell. Even if you go along with the idea of sticking to 4-4-2, there are still regrets: a 34-year-old Alan Shearer was back at home having scored 22 goals that season in the Premier League. Vassell only ever got into double figures in a league season once. Again, it does make you wonder what might have been…
But had England triumphed against Portugal, it is conceivable that they still could have won the tournament. They had pushed France very close and put a combined total of seven goals past Switzerland and Croatia. They were just building up a head of steam; victory over the hosts would have increased it further going into the clash with the Dutch.
And after that…well, it’s difficult to say whether or not they would have beaten Greece, given that so many teams that should have beaten them didn’t. But they would have been more suited to playing them than Portugal due to the team’s more physical presence. Having said that, they would have been without Rooney, their top performer, so it’s impossible to tell.
Euro 2004 is like this – because of who won, and the way in which they won, it does leave the door open for you to wonder what might have been if Player X had been selected, or if Team Y hadn’t underperformed when it mattered. It’s always great when an underdog wins a major trophy, particularly at the time, but in hindsight, it does leave a tinge of regret when you compare to other winning sides. One of my abiding memories of that time is buying the official Euro 2004 video game, and seeing how many great teams there were in the competition, all fairly evenly-matched. None of them won it.
The 2004 Greece side is an unparalleled example in international football. However, the margins in knockout football are tiny. It’s possible it could happen again in a major tournament. But in some ways, I hope it doesn’t, because we would look back on it ten years down the line and think “well, what if…?”