Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The European Championships - 2004

Depending on who you ask, Greece's victory at Euro 2004 was either a victory for the footballing romantic or a dour triumph of defensiveness over attacking flair. Greece, who had only ever qualified for the tournament once before, in 1980, arrived in Portugal with a pretty straightforward philosophy - we know our limitations and will play within them. As the other major footballing nations fell one by one, the Greeks kept on plugging away and suddenly, without many people even having noticed, they were on the winners podium at the Estadio De Luz in Lisbon, having snatched the title from under the noses of the hosts, Portugal. Stranger still, England turned up, played decent football and were unfortunate to get knocked out at the quarter-final stage. There were those that had doubted whether this tournament, coupled with the perceived English penchant for drinking in hot weather and starting fights, could pass off without trouble, but English football continued the partial rehabilitation that had started in 2002 - critics of English supporters now have to satisfy themselves with drawing on crude stereotypes of English behaviour than anything that they actually do now.

The tournament started with a warning that no-one seemed to heed. Greece rushed into a 2-0 lead in Oporto against the hosts in the opening match and managed to hold on to a 2-1 win. The major disappointments in Group A were (you guessed it) Spain. Yet again, the Spanish failed to get to the latter stages of the tournament. Having beaten Russia in their opening match, were held to a draw by Greece and beaten by Portugal, and those that accuse the Greeks of wilfully negative football should remember that the Spanish were knocked out by Greece on goals scored, having managed just two in four matches. In Group B, England had to recover from about as disastrous start as one could imagine. They played excellently for eighty-nine minutes in their opening match against France in Lisbon, although the writing on the wall was there when David Beckham missed a penalty when they were already 1-0 up. In stoppage time, a free kick from Zinedine Zidane and a terrible backpass from Steven Gerrard gifted France three points that they frankly didn't deserve. In their second match against Switzerland, England toiled in the first half before relaxing to a 3-0 win, punctuated by an excellent performance by Wayne Rooney, who was displaying all of the potential that Premier League watchers had been drooling over. In the group's final matches, Rooney put in the individual performance of the tournament, scoring two and making one in a 4-2 win against Croatia to put them and France through to the quarter-finals.

There were further surprises to be found in Groups C and D. In Group C, controversy surrounded the final round of matches. Denmark and Sweden have long been friends in the international football arena (most Swedes had no difficulty in transferring their support to Sweden when the Danes made the final of Euro 92, for example), and the two teams went into the final round of group matches knowing that a 2-2 draw or higher would eliminate Italy no matter what the Italians did to the hapless Bulgarians, who were already out. Gossip and dark rumour surrounded the match, including talk of considerable amounts of money having been bet on a 2-2 draw between the Danes and the Swedes. With Italy leading 2-1 against Bulgaria and Denmark 2-1 up against Sweden thanks to two goals from Jon Dahl Tomasson, it looked as if the Swedes were going out, but then, with two minutes to play, Matias Jonson scored for Sweden and knocked Italy out. There has never been any sort of inquiry by UEFA (who stated that they felt that the rumours were "insulting" to the Danes and the Swedes), and I've watched the video of the match dozens of times and can see no wrong-doing. In Group D, the Germans were the big name casualties. They started with a 1-1 draw against the Dutch, but then failed to break Latvia down and were held to a 0-0 draw. In their final match, they were beaten 2-1 by the Czechs, who had already lost an extraordinary group match 3-2 against the Netherlands. Germany haven't won a European Championship finals match in normal time since they beat Croatia 2-1 in the quarter-finals of Euro 96.

England were knocked out by Portugal on penalty kicks. Having taken an early lead through Michael Owen, they defended reasonably admirably until Helda Postiga levelled things up with six minutes to play, and in the last minute had a "six of one, half a dozen of the other" goal from Sol Campbell disallowed. Rui Costa put the Portuguese 2-1 up in the second half of extra-time, but a late goal from Frank Lampard levelled things again. The writing was on the wall for England when David Beckham blasted England's first penalty over the crossbar, but they managed to take it to sudden death before Darius Vassell's shot was saved by Ricardo, who then stepped up himself to score the winner. The Netherlands and Sweden did everything but score in 120 minutes, which, considering their record in penalty shoot-outs, might have been bad news for the Dutch. They went through 6-5 after Olaf Mellberg's penalty was saved by Edwin Van Der Saar. The surprise of the quarter-finals came at the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon, where a solitary goal from Angelos Charisteas was enough for Greece to put the holders, France, out. Finally, the Czech Republic brushed Denmark aside 3-0 in a performance that many said afterwards was the best team performance of the tournament.

In the semi-finals, Portugal's 2-1 against the Netherlands was somewhat more comfortable than the scoreline might suggest. Cristiano Ronaldo (who, at the time, was just another player rather than the "greatest player in the world" that many seem to think that he is now) headed the hosts in front in the first half, and an astonishing shot from Maniche made their lead comfortable early in the second half. A late own goal from Jorge Andrade let the Dutch back into the match, but the hosts were comfortably through to their first major final. In the other semi-final, the Czechs hammered away at the Greek defence but were unable to find a way through. A single goal from Traianos Dellas in extra-time was enough to put the Greeks through, but the real star of the show was Antonis Nikopolidis, whose performance in the Greek goal resembled a scene from "Rourke's Drift" at times.

The final looked, on paper, as if it should be a coronation for the host nation. Portugal had ridden their luck against England in the quarter-finals and had already been beaten by the Greeks in their opening match, but it seemed unlikely that they would make the same mistakes again. Greece had done extraordinarily well to get through the knock-out stages, never mind all the way to the final, but logic went, as it had done so many times already during the tournament, out of the window. For all of the vast array of attacking options at their disposal, the Portuguese seemed to freeze on the night, and were unable to break the Greek defence down. The winning goal came, again, from Angelos Charisteas from a header. One of the more remarkable features of Euro 2004 was how little these headers were picked up from corners. Their goal was hardly attacked again for the remainder of the match, and the match finished with a global celebration as the Greek diaspora celebrated its nation's biggest ever sporting triumph.

England vs Croatia

The Best Of Greece At Euro 2004

All of which ties up our series of tournament reviews. We'll be doing the Champions League final live on here this evening, then there'll be a preview of the play-off semi-finals this weekend, and we'll start having a look at the runners and riders for this year's European Championships over the weekend and at the start of next week. Busy times.


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