This Friday marks 16 years since the day the Greek national team first entered the pitch to compete for the European Championships of 2004 (or Euro, for short) in sunny Portugal, a journey that would see them reach the pinnacle of football success less than a month later.
Otto Rehhagel’s men entered the competition as the complete outsiders amongst a total of 16 teams, with bookies giving them a 500 to 1 chance of winning the trophy. As a matter of fact, there were many stories heard at the time of people who had placed their bets on the team, only to become a lot wealthier! But all of the hard facts and the theories turned to dust just as soon as the players walked out into the pitch of the “Dragao” stadium in Oporto for the first game of the tournament. And it was no easy feat, as they were up against the team which had the home advantage – Portugal.
The Portuguese were heavy favourites themselves, with players such as Nuno Gomes, Rui Costa, Luis Figo, Deco, Pauleta and a young Cristiano Ronaldo (who was participating in the first European Championship of his grand career) in their ranks! And yet, it only took seven minutes for a team of that quality to turn into an unorganised bunch as Greece grabbed an early lead thanks to a Giorgos Karagounis shot from far outside the box that left goalkeeper Vitor Baia watching helpless as the ball violated his net. That was it!
The “pirate ship” (as famous Greek sportscaster Giorgos Helakis dubbed the Greek team) had embarked on its journey to reach the top of all of Europe and no one was going to block their path. And on the 4 July, Theodoros Zagorakis lifted the trophy to the sky of Lisbon, sending all Greeks around the world into a frenzy.
THE GLORY DAYS
Considering the fact that the Greek national team had only qualified for a Euro once before 2004, even the fact that the team was going to be present in Portugal was more than enough for football fans to have a reason to celebrate. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that not a single fan believed that the team would make it past the group stage, let alone all the way to the finals! But the circumstances made for a very joyous occasion, as a few months later (August) Athens was set to host the 2004 Olympic Games. And every win gave the Greeks even more reason to celebrate!
During the games, every single person, be they a football fanatic or someone who didn’t even know what shape the ball has, was in front of a screen to watch the efforts of Angelos Haristeas, Zisis Vryzas, Angelos Basinas and the rest of the group. And more often than not, when the final whistle would be heard, everyone, from the most remote little village all the way to the Syntagma Square, would erupt into celebrations. The pinnacle of this of course was when the players were welcomed at the Kallimarmaro stadium of Athens after the end of the tournament to present the trophy, in front of a crowd of over 100,000 excited people who wanted to get a small glimpse of the cup or the heroes who made the dream a reality.
MEANWHILE IN MELBOURNE
Of course, things couldn’t be much different in Melbourne, considering the huge number of Greeks living in the city. Large screens were placed in Lonsdale street as many members of the local community gathered to watch the games, despite the odd times that they were played, with the majority of them being held in the early morning hours.
A lot of people took “sickies” or days off work to be able to watch the games, while after the games the CBD was almost inaccessible due to the frantic celebrations. Neos Kosmos couldn’t possibly be unaffected by these events either, as the paper was forced to release a special mid-week edition every Tuesday where special reports and in-depth analysis were included for every single game of Greece’s journey to success.
After the end of tournament, former Prime Minister John Howard, but also the then-state premier Steve Bracks and former Melbourne city Mayor John Shaw sent congratulatory letters to the Greek Community for the success of the national team. But among all those events, there was one that truly stood out, when a Melbourne woman called the offices asking for a translation of the Greek national anthem for her son, who didn’t speak the language, but wanted to know what the players were chanting so passionately…
The future of the team was not equally impressive, though it did feature a few good moments, most notable of which was the qualification to the round of 16 of the Brazil World Cup in 2014. But after that, things took a downhill course. Yet no matter what happens, all Greeks around the world will always have that summer of 2004.