The Euros start tomorrow, and if you aren’t hyped yet then you’re either a master of self-control or you actively dislike European football. At its best, the Euros can feel like a smaller version of the World Cup. At it worst, the Euros can feel like… a smaller version of the World Cup.
Like it’s larger, intercontinental sibling, it’s hard to tell how the Euros will shake out before the tournament kicks off. You could get a veritable feast of thrilling football, or you could get bogged down in feeble contests that make you wish you could have those hours of your life back. And sometimes the tournament is just… weird. Like, oh, say, 2004.
This week we look back at the finale of Euro 2004 and the most unlikely champions in the tournament’s history.
By the time the group stages ended nobody knew what the hell was going on. Three of the teams pegged as early favorites— Germany, Italy, and Spain— all failed to get out of their groups. The knockout rounds were left to the likes of France, England, the hosts Portugal, outsiders like the Czech Republic and Greece.
Of those who remained, you would think France had the best shot at going all the way. This squad had Zidane and Henry at the height of their powers. This same squad, more or less, would get to the Final in the World Cup two years later.
But Euro 2004 was drunk, and the presumptive favorites ended up losing 1-0 to Greece in the quarterfinals. Greece! They who were competing in just their third major tournament ever. They who, in their previous two tournament berths— Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup— had failed to win a match and scored just once. They who got out of their group with four points and had now snuck into the last four by beating France. No one knew what was going on.
Greece then booked a place in the Final thanks to a 1-0 win in extra time against the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, Portugal dispatched England in the quarters on penalties and then notched a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the semifinals. With home field advantage and a young Cristiano Ronaldo in the side, the smart money was clearly on Portugal.
Except not that smart, because Euro 2004 didn’t make a lick of sense. In what was a fairly dull final, Greece did what they did best and hunkered down for a siege. The Portuguese crashed against the rocks like so many of their Imperial galleons while the Greeks waited for their opening. It finally came in the 57th minute when Angelos Charisteas headed home off a corner kick. If you watched the Champions League Final this year and took away the late drama, you more or less have the Euro 2004 Final. Greece got their goal and held on for dear life. Portugal pushed and prodded for an equalizer but the Greeks would not yield.
Was it luck? Was it shrewd defensive discipline? Was it a right place + right time thing? The arguments over how Greece managed to win the Euros 12 years ago are still going on. Greece, however, could care less about the debates. They got their trophy.
No one really knows how the Euros are going to go this summer. It could be a solemn march to coronation for France or Germany (or one or two others in the mix). It could be a free-for-all where Ireland lucks out and wins the whole shebang. Whee! The tournament kicks off tomorrow as France takes on Romania. Kickoff is at 3pm EST on ESPN. Good luck and godspeed.