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Seventeen years on, Nikos Dabizas is straining for the faintest recollection of the moment Markus Merk whistled for full‑time at the Estádio da Luz and changed an entire squad’s lives.
“The hard disc crashed,” he says. “There is no memory of it. Those two hours after the final are blank, you just look back on television to realise what was happening. At the time you couldn’t think, couldn’t recall things, just lived the moment and the river of emotions. It sounds strange, but it was so big we couldn’t handle it.”
Nobody has come close to emulating Greece’s achievement yet. Otto Rehhagel’s players turned up at Euro 2004 with scant international pedigree and barrelled everyone else aside in a campaign that, although glaringly anomalous in a wider context, was no fluke at the time. To beat Portugal, high on host-nation euphoria, once in a tournament might be fortunate: to do it twice is another matter and, given their other scalps included France and a marvellous Czech Republic side, there is no question who Europe’s best team was that summer.
“If someone said we wouldn’t do very well at the Euros, Mr Rehhagel always turned to me and said: ‘They don’t know what we know.’” Ioannis Topalidis is talking about the steely self-assurance the three‑times Bundesliga winner Rehhagel, who did not appear to need the hassle when taking a seemingly accursed job as a 63-year-old in 2001, transmitted to a group that outwardly stood little chance. While the rigour instilled by Rehhagel, a character impervious to the politics that had beset Greek football, was the headline factor for their success, there were more complex forces behind a triumph of cultural translation and assimilation.
Topalidis was an unknown coach, born and raised in Germany, who had worked in amateur football and scouted for Köln. Shortly after Rehhagel’s first game in charge, a hideous 5-1 World Cup qualifying defeat in Finland, Topalidis took an unexpected call. It was Rehhagel, who requested a meeting in Berlin and explained he needed a right-hand man.
Topalidis’s most important function, as someone who sat astride Greek and German cultures, was to make sure players and manager understood one another. An obvious component of that was the ability to filter the message, given Rehhagel’s directness might not otherwise have had its intended effect.
“The countries’ cultures are quite different but this was about football: Mr Rehhagel was a great man and dealt with it,” Topalidis says. “It was very important we got the message through. When it came to tactics I always explained what the coach wanted. But sometimes, when he criticised the players, maybe I made it a little bit less harsh. The two languages are very different and sometimes you have to tweak it a little.”
The pair sat alongside each other at Greece’s next game, the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in which David Beckham rescued England at the death. Dabizas explains the players had quickly taken to Rehhagel’s ways, even accounting for eccentricities. “We had a guy face to face with us and working his own way,” he says. “And if he was taking decisions that were a mistake, or a bit strange at the time, we knew it was his decision alone and we trusted him. The way he operated in his own reality was a big boost to us.”
Even though Rehhagel then qualified Greece for Euro 2004, overcoming a poor start with six straight wins that included a portentous win over Spain in Zaragoza, there were deep-seated insecurities to shake off. In the country’s most recent appearance at a major tournament, they had been no better than tourists at USA 94. They lost three times, failed to score and conceded 10. “People expected something similar to happen in Portugal,” Topalidis says.
To Dabizas it summed up a broader attitude that had held Greece back. “The national team had never been at the top of the Greek football pyramid,” he says. “It was not the players’ priority in life to play for their country and the media didn’t pay a lot of attention. Playing in England [for Newcastle and Leicester] and seeing how they approached their team, the disappointment was even bigger.
“So the only target we had at Euro 2004 was to be competitive, represent the country with pride, and improve on that dreadful record in America. We had the inner belief that we could do that, but we didn’t really have the goal of qualifying from our group, it didn’t seem a realistic approach. We were just 100% determined to change the way we had approached that World Cup.”
The lack of expectation owed, in part, to being placed in a quartet alongside Portugal and Spain. But they immediately beat the Portuguese with an intelligent, brave performance. Angelos Charisteas then earned them a draw with Spain but, Greece being Greece, defeat to a modest Russia team meant they progressed by the skin of their teeth.
“That was the most difficult game,” Dabizas says. “Russia was when we had to carry a lot of weight on our shoulders in terms of the game’s importance.” Dabizas himself did not play a minute of Greece’s campaign; he was vice-captain but sustained a minor groin injury before the tournament and, although fit after the opening game, could not force his way back into Rehhagel’s lineup.
“I was unlucky in a sense but perhaps lucky in another way, who knows?” he says, generously. “If I was involved, maybe I would have been a disaster and maybe Greece wouldn’t have won the Euros.”
Dabizas thinks that kind of collective spirit, nurtured painstakingly by Rehhagel, helped see Greece through. Part of the marvel is that their players genuinely had other things going on. Before the quarter-final against a star-laden France, squad members packed their bags and firmed up their travel plans for holidays and weddings. It sounds a likely story but Dabizas confirms plans had to be hurriedly rearranged.
“Of course it’s true,” he says. “People had holidays and we didn’t think we’d be staying there. It was farcical in a way: people were planning to marry, to go away on holiday, and had to reschedule. But against what? Another week? Longer?”
The wider Greek world barely knew what to think when they won, Charisteas scoring while Zinedine Zidane and a frustrated Thierry Henry were nullified. “Every step of the way it was: ‘This is amazing, but it’s as far as we will get,’” says Christopher Andre Marks, a Greek American whose documentary, King Otto, about their feat is released on Monday. “But the miracle kept perpetuating; the dream kept extending.”
Topalidis felt beating France gave Greece lift-off. “That was the moment I started to believe and think: ‘We can actually win this,’” he says. The rest is history: Traianos Dellas saw off the Czechs with a silver-goal winner in Porto; then Charisteas, the tournament’s unlikely star, hung in the air to stun Portugal and spark that glorious chaos Dabizas cannot quite picture.
“Once we reached the final we wanted to finish the miracle,” he says. “It wasn’t just about participating by that point. In the end we beat them twice and it was a clear indication we were a better team: not the most talented team, but the most effective team.”
Terms such as that can be applied pejoratively. They often have where Greece are concerned: as the tournament progressed, Rehhagel’s unapologetic pragmatism became increasingly marked and one analysis from the Guardian – “the only underdogs in history everyone wants to see gets beaten” – was characteristic of attitudes abroad.
“I don’t find it annoying because it’s the truth,” Dabizas says of such criticism. “But it doesn’t take anything away from us. If you told 1,000 people in England that you’d win Euro 2020 like that, 1,000 would sign straight away. Of course we weren’t Brazilians, Spaniards or Germans: we had to be realistic, relying on defence, taking advantage of set pieces and being very effective on the counter.”
Greece have never built on their success. “When everything is under control we tend to lose control,” is how Dabizas puts it, but the memories have helped console a nation through economic catastrophe.
“It was something that transcended sport,” Marks says. “Greeks felt relevant on the world stage for the first time in the modern era. It was a unifying moment and, given the last decade and a half have been so difficult, it bred the kind of joy and nostalgia that carries you through the tough times. There is the feeling of: ‘At least we had that moment.’”
They certainly did. “What we achieved is something that happens only once,” Topalidis says. Dabizas agrees: “Believe me, this will not happen again. I say that with my whole heart. It was one of the biggest miracles, if not the biggest miracle, in European international football.”
King Otto will be available on DVD and digital from 5 July courtesy of 101 Films