Monday, July 05, 2004

EURO 2004: The Fairy Tale Ending

At 3:30 this morning I dragged myself out of bed, bleary-eyed, and tiptoed through the silent house to turn on the TV. It was 7:30 pm Sunday evening in Lisbon and the Final of Euro 2004 was about to begin: host Portugal against rank outsider Greece.

Could the feisty Greeks pull it off?

One of the perpetual also-rans of European football, the Greeks had been viewed simply as a make-weight among the 16 teams when the competition began on June 12. To everyone’s surprise they pulled off a stunning win against host-nation Portugal – the same team they were to meet in the final - in the opening match of the tournament. The commentators put it down to luck but then on June 16th Greece held mighty Spain to a 1-1 draw.

What was going on here? The balance of football wisdom seemed to be redressed with a June 20 defeat by the Russians, but Portugal’s 1-0 defeat of Spain on the same evening saw the Greeks advance to the quarter finals on goal difference (if the Win-Loss-Draw tally is the same for two teams, the team scoring the higher number of goals goes through). Spain and Russia were out of Group A and Greece advanced along with Portugal.

Strange things were also happening in two of the other groups. Italy had crashed out of Group C and World Cup finalists Germany, a perennial powerhouse in the European game, had failed to win a single one of its matches in Group D. Aufwiedersehen.

In the quarter finals Portugal beat Beckham and Rooney’s England squad with a 6-5 penalty shootout while the Greeks stunned the reigning European champions France with a 1-0 win. Holland and the Czech Republic went through in the other two matches.

People began to sit up and take notice. How long could this run of luck last? The Greek team had no star players to speak of and their style of football wasn’t all that fluent and polished to watch either. They seemed to make up with spirit and energy for the lack of finer skills: they swarmed all over any opponent with the ball and had any number of lucky escapes when the other side should have scored but never quite managed to get the ball in the back of the net. The Greeks always managed to squeak by with that one all-important goal, often scored completely against the run of play.

The home country was getting into the spirit of things by now and planeloads of Greek fans started to descend on Portugal for the semi final match against a tough Czech side. The Czechs had won every single one of their matches so far, including difficult games against Holland, Germany and Denmark. They were definitely the favourites to win.

Again the Greeks pulled it off with a 1-0 result against the flow of play. Incredibly, they were in the European final.

Watching the tense first half of the final in the early hours of this morning, it seemed unlikely that the fairytale success of the side would carry over into the ultimate victory. The Portuguese dominated possession and swept down the field again and again to put the Greek goal under attack. The Greeks held out staunchly often with as many as 10 men crowded in defence – and managed to pick up 4 yellow cards in the process.

Twelve minutes into the second half, completely against the run of play, it happened again!

Greece was awarded its only corner kick of the match and the angels combined – Angelis Basinas lofted the ball into the Portuguese goalmouth and Angelos Charisteas rose in the air and then the ball was in the back of the net, no chance at all for Ricardo the goalkeeper.

Stunned disbelief. The 62,000 crowd, more than a third of them in the blue and white colours of Greece, went wild. For the next half hour Portugal poured it on with attack after attack. Costinha went off to be replaced by the veteran Rui Costa. Figo missed by a few inches left of the post. Still the Greeks held out, often seeming about to buckle under the constant pressure from the red-shirted Portuguese. Fifteen minutes to go, ten minutes to go … and then a strange episode when a fan carrying Barcelona colours ran on to the pitch and managed to evade a horde of chasing security people for a minute or more. He seemed to fling the colours at Figo (a denunciation for switching to Real Madrid? Who knows) and then rather foolishly ran into the open goal and became entangled in the back of the net. It took several more minutes to get the match restarted and 5 minutes of extra-time had to be added on.

Finally, unbelievably, the final whistle -- and it was all over.

Greece the 80-1 underdogs had won. Absolute pandemonium.

How I love it when these things happen -- and how I wish I had put 20 Euros on Greece!! Ah well, next time. Only next time something just as surprising may happen.

Football -- the beautiful game.