The Olympic Games start in Athens in six weeks'
time but Greece's footballers have already reached the summit of their own Mount
Their staggering and unprecedented success in
becoming European soccer champions has brought the first of this summer's major
sporting events to a truly remarkable climax.
Their 1-0 win over hosts Portugal in the Euro
2004 final surpasses any other achievement in international soccer history.
The final -- decided by Angelos Haristeas's 57th
minute winner -- was the second time the teams met in the tournament after they
played the opening game in Porto three weeks ago.
The pattern for many of the surprises that
followed was set as early as the seventh minute of that match when Giorgos
Karagounis stunned the hosts with a bouncing drive into the net.
Greece's eventual 2-1 win was totally unexpected
and set the pattern for the tournament in another way as Euro 2004 continued a
trend started at the 2002 World Cup when the most skilful players were
increasingly overshadowed by lesser names.
Many of the greatest players -- Zinedine Zidane
and Thierry Henry of France, David Beckham and Michael Owen of England,
Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero of Italy and Raul and Fernando
Morientes of Spain -- had tournaments to forget.
One explanation was fatigue after long club
seasons but UEFA's technical delegation is unconvinced of that.
After all, other players like England's Wayne
Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Milan Baros of the Czech Republic and
Yourkas Seitaridis of Greece all blossomed.
Nobody emerged as the obvious player of the
tournament although several including Baros, the top scorer with five goals,
Tired or not, the players produced some
The Czech Republic's 3-2 come-from-behind win
over the Netherlands was a classic, while France's last-gasp 2-1 victory over
England and Portugal's 1-0 success against neighbors Spain were dramatic,
Greece's 1-0 wins over holders France in the
quarter-finals, the Czechs in the semis and Portugal in the final were also
extraordinary with all three games won with headers.
Played in wonderful stadiums filled with
passionate crowds and no hint of trouble, the lasting memory of Euro 2004 will
be of glorious hot days and nights and dramatic, intriguing matches, climaxing
with a fairy-tale ending.
Portugal, benefiting from the astute tactics of
Brazil's World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and home advantage, reached
a major final for the first time, Greece did likewise, and other middle-ranking
teams made a major impact.
Latvia, Bulgaria and Switzerland were the
weakest but the Latvians at least gained their first point in their first major
tournament with a battling 0-0 draw against Germany.
Germany have been in decline since winning the
European Championship eight years ago. Their once-mighty soccer machine has
failed to manufacture replacements for the likes of Juergen Klinsmann, Lothar
Matthaeus and Matthias Sammer who won Euro 96.
But the Germans are not alone.
For the first time in the 44-year history of the
tournament, none of Europe's big five -- Germany, Spain, Italy, France or
England -- made the semi-finals.
Holders France flattered to deceive with a
momentous 2-1 win over England. Lucky not to lose to Croatia in their next match,
they needed two late goals to beat a poor Swiss side and reach a quarter-final
against Greece that they were expected to win.
But age finally caught up with players like
Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu, Fabien Barthez and Lilian Thuram as unfancied Greece
shocked the champions by winning 1-0 to become the first team to beat the hosts
and holders in the same tournament.
The Greek victory over the French was the
biggest upset in European Championship history.
England, like France tipped as possible
champions, went out at the same stage after a 6-5 penalty shootout defeat by
Portugal following a 2-2 draw.
England did unearth a major new name in
18-year-old Rooney, who scored four goals and had the biggest impact by a
youngster on a major tournament since Pele at the 1958 World Cup.
England captain Beckham failed to shine, however,
and missed two penalties including one in the shootout against Portugal.
Francesco Totti was another player in the
Italy's game-plan was built around the
playmaker's talents but his tournament ended in disgrace after one match when TV
pictures showed him spitting at Denmark's Christian Poulsen and he was handed a
three-match ban by European governing body UEFA.
Unfortunately for Totti, Italy only had two
matches left to play as they were eliminated after a 2-2 draw between Sweden and
Denmark sent both Scandinavian sides into the quarter-finals.
The Italians departed unbeaten, grumbling about
a conspiracy between the Swedes and Danes.
The Czechs made a more dignified exit after a
heart-breaking 1-0 silver goal defeat by Greece in the semi-finals.
Winners of their first four games, the Czechs
seemed set for a final against Portugal before fate intervened. It was a cruel
way for the best footballing team of Euro 2004 to be eliminated.
But that result set up a final with the
tournament ending the way it began with a match between Portugal and Greece.
Few people at the opening match on June 12
thought they were watching the first of a two-part epic. Even fewer would have
thought Greece could be crowned European champions.
But the Greeks carried on as they had started --
defying the odds and reaching Olympian heights.