From ‘travelling circus’ to European champions

When Greece claimed the UEFA European Football Championship in 2004 the definition of a Cinderella story was re-written.

Up until that point, the minnow footballing nation had never won a game or scored a goal in any appearance at a major tournament.

So, when Theodoros Zagorakis lifted the cup above his head, and with it, a renewed identity for Greeks around the globe, the sports world was left utterly speechless.

How had the modest Mediterranean nation pulled the rug out from under football’s heavyweights?

The answer; their coach and saviour, Otto Rehhagel – King Otto.

When then president of the Greek FA, Vasilis Gagatsis, put out on SOS to Rehhagel – the veteran German coach who had won three Bundesliga titles and a Europa Cup – the national team was rabble.

As Gagatsis himself puts it, “the team was like a travelling circus”, forced to plead with local clubs to use their facilities to train.

Rehhagel’s patented German approach to discipline and structure was like oil on water to the Greeks, but as Christopher Andre Marks, director of new documentary ‘King Otto’ puts it, it was exactly what they needed.

“It was 2001, but prior to that, the last international standing was the 94′ World Cup where Greece did not perform well,” he told Wide World of Sports.

“They needed a change of pace, and to Mr Gagatsis’ credit he found the guy to do it.

“One thing which always stuck out was how the players and Greeks in general were very much divided based off their club affiliations.

“Greeks always say ‘Ti omatha eisai?’ or ‘what team are you?’ It’s an identity piece, they weren’t really looking at the national picture.

“Otto coming in with an idea to make unity the goal, was one of the biggest he could have done for Greece.”

A 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Finland was symptomatic of teething problems early in Rehhagel’s reign, and a sign that the cultural gulf, not to mention language barrier, were factors that needed addressing, fast.

Unable to communicate with his players, Rehhagel recruited the help of Ioannis Topalidis – a German-born Greek coach working as an assistant for Germany. Familiar with both worlds, not only was Topalidis able to translate, but massage the cultural friction between Rehhagel and his players.

From there, things improved drastically. A 2-2 World Cup qualifier epic against England heralded a revitalised Greek outfit to the football fraternity, and if the heavyweights weren’t taking notice, by 2004 they would be.

Greece had drawn the so-called ‘group of death’ at the European Championships, consisting of Portugal, Spain and Russia. But when they stunned host nation Portugal 2-1 in the tournament opener, the tone was set for their campaign.

A 1-1 draw with Spain followed and then a 2-1 loss to Russia which saw the Greeks progress through Group A by the skin of their teeth. But they would not make the same mistake twice.

Ahead of the quarterfinals, Rehhagel was faced with an even greater challenge in reigning European champions France.

He knew the confidence and exuberance he had instilled in his Greek troops would not get them over the line alone against the likes Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, he needed a new tactic.

Criticised by some for bringing an arguably unattractive defensive style of play into the knockout stages, Rehhagel’s Greece would stun the champions through a water-tight defensive structure that used an occasional counter-attack to ambush.

As Marks puts it: “Otto played the game to win, however they won – a win is a win. Criticism didn’t faze him. Maybe other people were getting worked up about it, but for him, this is how he needed to play to be France, Spain and Portugal.”

A 1-0 golden point goal over the Czech Republic in the semis, who at the time boasted the likes of Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky and Pavel Nedved, flipped the script and the stage was set for Greece’s grand final swan song.

Remarkably, the final game of Euro 2004 was a rematch of the tournament opener. A clash against host nation Portugal at the Estadio da Luz.

Rehhagel had gotten into the habit of delivering grandiose, inspirational speeches to his underdogs before each match of the tournament. But ahead of the final a simple, “I believe in you, do it for Greece”, was all that needed to be said.

In eras past, Greeks had alienated their national team after decades of failure on the international level. But when the players took to the Estadio da Luz, they were stunned to see the stands awash with blue and white. Making their way across the Mediterranean, Greeks had re-embraced their international identity and were ready to take it global.

There were no controversial narratives in the final. Rehhagell had drilled into his troops what he wanted and how he wanted it done – and they enacted it to the tee.

A 58th minute header by Angelos Charisteas will forever be immortalised in the mind of every Greek, as the Mediterranean nation revived the image of their ancient ancestors to once again put them front and centre on the international stage, with a 1-0 win over Portugal.

“In many ways, Otto created a whole new identity,” Marks says.

“Beyond his tactical approach, just in terms of belief. These guys on the team were great players but they didn’t believe they should have been playing against France in the quarter final, let alone contesting a grand final. They had never won a game in a major tournament.

“So, I think having someone who had so much success in Germany come in and say ‘you can compete with these guys’, that belief and instilling that confidence in them was what changed the whole national identity.”

Greece’s David and Goliath story is a timely reminder ahead of the upcoming Euro 2021 (postponed after 2020’s global pandemic), that, at least in sport, anything is possible.

“Hopefully people look to 2004 and use that as positive to say, an underdog can win the Euro. It’s just about putting in the steps necessary.”

Following Greece’s victory, Rehhagel was offered his long-held dream job to coach the German national team.

He rejected the offer to stay on with Greece.

‘King Otto’ is currently in cinemas across Australia.

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