If you believe that history repeats itself, we may just be in for a very special Euro 2016.
At the 1992 European Championships, Denmark shocked the continent, beating Germany 2-0 in the final. The Danes only qualified because Yugoslavia were ejected after the outbreak of civil war in the country. At Euro 2004, 12 years later, Greece triumphed 1-0 in the final against tournament hosts Portugal.
This summer’s tournament marks another 12-year cycle in the European Championship history and with more nations than ever featuring in France due to the expansion from 16 to 24 teams, the chance of another upset is perhaps even more of a possibility.
The smaller nations could do worse than follow the Greek blueprint, as they pulled off an upset every bit as stunning as Leicester City’s recent Premier League triumph. Unfashionable and unfancied, they came from nowhere to stun a team featuring Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco.
Otto Rehhagel’s side in fact beat the hosts twice, setting the tone for their amazing run by beating Portugal 2-1 in the tournament’s opening game, and that margin of victory would come to characterise Greece’s tournament.
The result set them on their way and, after qualifying for the knockout stages following a 1-1 draw with Spain and 2-1 defeat to Russia, three straight 1-0 wins against France, the Czech Republic (after extra-time) and Portugal delivered them a truly spectacular triumph. It is, understandably, the career highlight for former Greece international Kostas Katsouranis.
“That moment is my best in football. It was a dream period I will never forget,” recalls Katsouranis, who with 116 appearances is Greece’s third most-capped player.
“I never found words heavy enough to describe my feelings. This moment is my highest medal. At that moment (the final whistle) I hugged Giourkas Seitaridis and Takis Fyssas. We were in paradise. We are blessed to have lived that moment, but also worthy. Everyone did a great job. I will never forget a single moment.”
Rank outsiders yes, but Greece were hardly nobodies. Many players were recognised names at big European clubs. AEK Athens midfielder Katsouranis was one of 15 home-based players but Demis Nikolaidis (Atletico Madrid), Georgios Karagounis (Internazionale), Takis Fyssas (Benfica), Zisis Vryzas (Fiorentina), Traianos Dellas (Roma) and Bolton Wanderers’ Stelios Giannakopoulos were all established stars.
One thing they weren’t though were individuals. They were a tight unit that contained no egos. Katsouranis, now 36, added: “We put the ego into the group service and that’s why all 23 of us share the same triumph. We were close on the field and off and that was the secret of our triumph. We were disciplined and our greatest advantage was the star of the team was the team itself.”
Two Greek journalists who covered the tournament are unanimous in their belief that manager Rehhagel deserves ultimate credit.
The German, now 77, popularised the phrase ‘kontrollierte offensive’ (controlled offence). He preferred robustness and height over footballing ability, especially in defence, but he was renowned for being a superb motivator, which was a major factor behind Greece’s triumph.
“Rehhagel created a team spirit,” said Vasilis Sambrakos, who was covering the national team for Greek daily newspaper To Vima 12 years ago. “He didn’t teach many tactics. His idea was to defend well in his own half, waiting for a counter-attack or a set piece to score. That was the golden recipe. All the players created not only a good team spirit but to be a group of friends ready to sacrifice themselves, one for the other.”
George Tsitsonis, a former contributor to FourFourTwo and FIFA Weekly who covered Euro 2004 for ESPN Soccernet, added: “One need look no further than Leicester’s amazing Premier League title-winning side to see how Greece did the unthinkable during that magical summer.
“Team unity, brilliant defence, proper tactics and growing belief. While the Greeks may have been devoid of star power, the attributes that led Leicester to do the unimaginable were the same that helped Greece do the seemingly impossible.
“This was a team in every sense of the word. A real band of brothers who grew closer as the tournament wore on. No prima donnas, no infighting that hindered squads before them. Team unity was the real key. Even in the difficult moments they stuck together.
“The fighting spirit of that team was something to behold. They were outplayed on many occasions, but didn’t know when they were beaten. For Greek football fans, the ability of their team to hang in there and battle on was perhaps one of the greatest memories.”
Many remember the final and Angelos Charisteas soaring above Costinha to nod Angelos Basinas’ corner past goalkeeper Ricardo – his third goal of the tournament. For others it might be the quarter-final victory against the Zinedine Zidane-inspired defending European champions France and their list of stars.
Les Bleus had won the World Cup six years previously. Charisteas rose high to meet Theo Zagorakis’s cross, planting a brilliant header into the roof of Fabian Barthez’s goal to send the Greeks into the semi-finals. There, Dellas’ header beat the Czechs 1-0 via a silver goal in extratime, sparking pandemonium as it sent them to the final.
What most tend to overlook though is how key the Greeks’ only loss at the tournament was. They were defeated 2-1 in their final Group A game by Russia, yet Vryzas’ 43rd minute goal was probably the most significant.
Combined with a 1-0 defeat for Spain to Portugal, the result saw Greece and La Roja finish level on points. It was the Greeks though who plundered a spot in the last eight as Rehhagel’s men advanced due to having scored more goals.
“Maybe that match was the turning point, I recall the players thinking the team had created momentum for something big,” added Sambrakos.
“The game with Russia was crucial,” said Katsouranis, twice Greek player of the year in 2005 and 2013. “We had a very bad 30 minutes, our worst in the tournament, and we found the strength to come back. After that we were in the final eight and knew that in the knockout phase everything can happen.”
Like Leicester, that’s likely to be the best it ever will be for Greek football. There have been tough times since at major tournaments, while the financial ruin the country has fallen into in recent years means the nationwide party of Euro 2004 seems a lifetime ago. But that most magical of moments can never be taken away from the Greek players or people.
For the minnows or debutants at this summer’s tournament thinking it might be impossible to topple world champions Germany or reigning European kings Spain, this Greek triumph also serves as a reminder that, in the ever-changing world of football, anything remains possible.
“For more than six months after the tournament, the members of the national team were like the Beatles wherever they went,” added Sambrakos. “Greeks of all ages were crying, trying to give them a big hug and say thanks for the greatest summer of their lives. Those moments will not ever leave my mind.”
Early career disappointments, watching his team, benched on the sidelines as an 18-year-old, instigated Romelu Lukaku’s addiction to improvement through training. Come the start of Euro 2016, this ultra-competitive character will put his mantra of, “You train how you play” to the test, looking for the chance to prove himself again to all of Europe on the international stage.
It’s tough to fathom that Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku is just 23-years-old. Having played at the top level professionally already for six years, he has a curious mix of a youth and veteran mindset behind his game that makes him both a leading scorer and a fan favorite.
It’s even tougher to comprehend how hard he pushes himself in order to prove to both himself and an entire nation that he is good enough to be part of the country’s growing reputation for brilliant football. He is fully aware of the remarkable talent that surrounds him: “You’ve got three players playing for your place man, so you better be that dude. You better be the dude that scores the goals.”
Lukaku’s relentless training regime mirrors his focus and passion he’s looking to unlock on the pitch this summer. Lukaku’s extra hours spent running between the cones hone his reaction and speed based on a determination to bring split-second moves to his already enviable scoring ability: “I’m really fast but I need to be more agile, to change directions quicker and improve my balance especially when I shoot.”
His extra hours of training day in and day out are based on a determination to bring some split-second moves to his already enviable scoring ability and prove himself at the tournament this summer. That ambition means training on top of training: “Sometimes when my team goes inside, I go outside to train on the field on my own for about 45 minutes and then I go into the gym for 45 minutes.”
The gym is a process of maintenance for the Everton striker and sometimes it’s a place to rebuild.
Exercising there is an occupation in itself, “I’m here to work. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to do business,” he says,
“Every job that I do has a specific reason — to give me five-percent more.”
Rio Ferdinand has urged England boss Roy Hodgson to start defender John Stones at Euro 2016. Stones will battle with Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling for a place in the England back four for Saturday’s opening group game against Russia in Marseille.
The 22-year-old Everton centre-back has had a testing season domestically and did not start the final warm-up fixture against Portugal on Thursday. But former England defender Ferdinand believes it is essential Stones is given the necessary experience in France this summer.
Ferdinand said: “I mean no disrespect to Gary Cahill but Cahill is not going to be playing at the World Cup (in Russia in 2018).
“You could not say Cahill and Smalling are a cast-iron partnership. So play Stones. It is about developing players with talent.
“There is no doubting that, this season, Stones has made mistakes and he has been hammered for them. But does that mean he does not have the potential to be a world class centre-half? No. It just meant he has to learn.
Gary Neville on John Stones: "He's been heavily criticised & a lot of it has been absolutely scandalous & personal" pic.twitter.com/ILhofN8dS3— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 5, 2016
“Someone with promise, who could go on and be a world beater – let him go on and develop the experience he needs. I found it took me 10 or 15 games to really feel comfortable in an England shirt and England dressing room.”
Ferdinand, capped 81 times by England, also urged Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford to soak up as much of the experience in France as possible.
As a teenager, Ferdinand was a member of England’s 1998 World Cup squad in the same country and felt it was a key learning process for him despite not seeing a minute of action.
He added: “I know, first hand, the benefit Rashford will get from France.
“I was very fortunate to go to the World Cup in 1998 and be a sponge, be a student and enjoy the tournament because I did not have any expectations of playing in the matches.
“He will get more minutes than I got in 1998 but he will not be an integral member of the team and he can say to himself, ‘In two years’ time I want to be the first name on the sheet at the World Cup, so what do I need to learn to make that happen?’.”