Coach with the Midas touch

A 250/1 rank outsider prior to the start of EURO 2004, Greece, which had lost five of its previous six matches in European (EURO 1980) and world (World Cup 1994) events, surprised all and was rewarded with a 21-place jump in the FIFA rankings, moving from 35 (June 2004) to 14 (July 2004).

The recent tirade of football purists against Jose Mourinho’s extra defensive setup at Chelsea has been well documented. His side did park “two buses” ahead of its goal in the Premier League tie against Liverpool. But his “anti-football” tactics did ensure a positive result for his side. In the ultra-competitive world of sport, results and accolades always get precedence over style and flair when posterity looks back to measure the achievements of teams and players.

And hence Otto Rehhagel, as popular as any great Greek theorist in the Hellenic Republic, rightly philosophises: “People tell me my tactics are not modern, but modern football is about winning.”

The German strategist, imbibed with a will to win at any cost, achieved grand success with an unfancied Greek team at EURO 2004. His team scored only seven goals in its six games in the Final stage, conceding five.

Rehhagel’s Greece, lacking depth in attack, banked on a formidable protective fortress, with two defensive midfielders sitting right ahead of a deep four-man backline. During its three knockout games, the Greeks usually patrolled its own half with 10 men, a sole forward roving alone in the opposition side, to wrestle for well-directed long balls.

The team carved out identical 1-0 victories in these three outings, with the goals in the semi-finals against the Czech Republic and the final versus host Portugal coming through headers from right-wing corners. A 250/1 rank outsider prior to the start of the competition, the side, which had lost five of its previous six matches in European (EURO 1980) and world (World Cup 1994) events, surprised all and was rewarded with a 21-place jump in the FIFA rankings, moving from 35 (June 2004) to 14 (July 2004).

Prior to the unexpected triumph, Greece was a poor footballing nation, conceding 14 goals and scoring just once in its previous two attempts in global competitions. The team’s place in history was worth documenting only as Diego Maradona scored his last international goal in a 4-0 Argentine win during the group stages of the 1994 World Cup in the USA, before being banned for failing a dope test.

The game, however, made an early appearance in ancient Greece, with playwright Antiphanes (388-311 BC) writing about it. Episkyros, as it was called then, played with a ball made of inflated pig bladder, between two teams of usually 12 or 14 players, and was often violent, particularly in Sparta. A pottery in the Acropolis Museum in Athens shows a Greek player balancing a ball on his thigh, giving further credence to the popularity of the game amongst the ancient citizens.

This image has been reproduced in the European Cup trophy, acknowledging the aged civilization’s (which also gave us the Olympics) role in the advent of the beautiful game.

* * * The top three

Angelos Charisteas, who retired from international football in 2011, will always be a modern day Greek legend. The gangly attacking winger scored thrice in EURO 2004, including the winning goal in the final. A journeyman footballer, who is now playing for his 12th side (Sydney Olympic), Charisteas, is also the second all-time leading goal-scorer for the national side, with 25 goals (88 appearances).

Nikolaos "Nikos"Anastopoulos, is regarded as one of the best strikers in Greece's footballing history, and leads the country's goal scoring charts with 29 strikes from 75 games.He scored the only goal for Greece in the disappointing EURO 1980 campaign in a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia. "Moustakkias", as he was lovingly called, scored 115 goals for Olympiacos and won the Bronze Boot as the third highest scorer in Europe in the 1982-83 season (29 goals).

Theodoros Zagorakis, as the team captain, led from the front in his team's unbelievable run in EURO 2004. Commanding in midfield role, Zagorakis was always present to cushion his backline and was also central to the team's forward movement if and when Greece attacked. The skipper was the provider for the team's winning goal in the quarterfinal clash against France.