Every year since 2004, Greeks celebrate their own 4th of July, as it is the day the Greek national football team stunned the world by beating Portugal 1-0 in the final and winning the European Cup.
It was a glorious year for Greece. A few days before taking the crown in European football, Greece had beaten world champions France to advance to the July 4 final against Euro 2004 hosts Portugal, and winning the first international cup in its history.
The crowning of the Greek national team seemed like a miracle to many. It was so unexpected, so nail-biting, so spectacular, so unbelievable at the end. Since only a month later Greece would host the 2004 Olympics in Athens, it was as if the gods of Olympus came down to watch the games and helped the football team as well.
Astonished Greeks granted the players the status of gods. They raised German coach Otto Rehhagel, the architect of the unbelievable triumph, on the same pedestal. They named him “Heracles” and put him in the pantheon of Greek sport forever.
It was Rehhagel who taught the Greek team discipline and belief in their abilities. Through discipline, strategy and concentration, the Greek players stood against giants like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Luis Figo and a young Cristiano Ronaldo and were winners at the end.
The climb to the top started on June 12. The performance in the group stage was better than expected. A 1-0 win over Portugal in the opening game, a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 2-1 defeat by Russia, sent Greece to the quarter finals.
This is when the surprises really started, as Greece had to face defending champions France, who had also won the World Cup in 1998. Yet France bowed to Greece in the last eight by Angelos Charisteas’ killer header in the second half.
The victory against France was considered a miracle. Very few believed it could be repeated in the semi-final against giants Czech Republic, who were the favorites along with France.
Yet the Czech Republic suffered a similar fate to that of France. With iron defense, Greece kept the Czechs away from their net for 90 minutes. They did the same for another 30 minutes at overtime, when a corner kick in extra time found the head of Traianos Dellas and then the net, sending Greeks to seventh heaven.
When the Greek team walked into Lisbon’s Stadium of Light in front of 63,000 people on Sunday, July 4, bets were on Portugal to take revenge for the defeat in the opening game. After all, Portugal was the better team and could not, should not, lose to the Greeks for the second time three weeks.
The German coach and his Greek heroes followed the same strategy that brought them to the final. A watertight defense, relentless pressure on the opponent to keep them away from Greece’s box and utilization of every chance in Portugal’s box.
Again, that chance was a powerful header from Charisteas 57 minutes into the match. The relentless Portuguese attack with the support of the rabid fans for the remaining minutes was not enough to break the Greece’s wall of defense. And at the end, Captain Theodoros Zagorakis raised the precious cup in the air, sending millions of Greeks across the globe into a frenzy.
In the homeland, Greeks took it to the streets and celebrated wildly through Monday morning. Along with them, the Greek diaspora came together and celebrated through the night in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
July 4, 2004 was a magical night that Greeks will remember forever. It will remain engraved not only in sports history but in Greece’s history as well.