Greece reached the pinnacle of European football in 2004, so what’s gone wrong since? Dom Smith travelled to Greece and spoke to ex-players and journalists to get to the bottom of it.
“I couldn’t drive. Every time we had a match in the Euros, I was finishing my daily sports show and driving back home, watching all the fans out in the road.” George Lykouropoulos sits up and beams as he discusses Greece’s incredible triumph at Euro 2004. Greece won the tournament by defying the odds and stunning hosts Portugal in the final.
Former Bolton Wanderers workhorse Stelios Giannakopoulos played in all but two of Greece’s games at the tournament. An international for 11 years, he had a brief spell recently as the Assistant Manager.
“It’s a feeling that, even with the rich Greek vocabulary, you cannot translate into words,” he admits. “It was and still is a unique feeling to be crowned a European champion. Greek football was not used to experiencing such success, either with its clubs or its national team. It was a big surprise, even to the Greek people.”
“Nobody thought before the tournament that we would win the trophy, the only thought we had was to be competitive in our games and make our people proud of our country,” explains Dimitris Papadopoulos, another member of the Euro 2004 squad and a former Burnley striker.
Exuding passion as he discusses his former teammates, Giannakopoulos knew he was part of an exceptional side. “It was a very good squad, full of very talented, gifted footballers. It was the best mix of players, and in top form as well because you need to be in good form in order to perform well in these major tournaments. I think it was maybe the best generation that Greece has produced.
“We had a great manager in [Otto] Rehhagel.” The German coach was renowned for his risk-free, winning approach and had already claimed three Bundesliga titles before taking the Greece job. In Giannakopoulos’ words, “it was a perfect combination of Greek talent married with German discipline.”
In his first few years, Rehhagel had united a group of players used to winning at their clubs, but not for the national team. “He had the best managing skills that I have encountered in my career” says Papadopoulos – a great compliment from a player whose time away from Greece and indeed Turf Moor saw him turn out for the likes of Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and Celta Vigo of Spain.
During the decade that followed, Greece qualified for all but one major tournament but never threatened a repeat of lifting further silverware. Lykouropoulos has fond memories of this period, though. “That was a very good era, under Fernando Santos. He had nearly the same mentality as Rehhagel and experience of the Greek mentality from working in clubs here. He was manager of AEK Athens, PAOK and Panathinaikos. We had a good (2014) World Cup, but then we lost our discipline.”
For just four games after the World Cup in Brazil, Claudio Ranieri took charge of Greece. Lykouropoulos closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Our federation took a chance with Claudio Ranieri, who didn’t function. There was an agent representing Ranieri, involved in the team’s business and the players’ business. He was a negative character, a negative factor. He was a bad influence on Ranieri, who didn’t do a good job.”
Since 2014, Greece haven’t reached a major tournament and Lykouropoulos is understandably concerned. “The team spirit of the Rehhagel and Santos eras had disappeared, and many players had finished their careers. We lost a generation of good players and lost progress. The new era was very close to a disaster. Losing a match against the Faroe Islands – it was a unique negative moment in our history.”
In his very next job, Ranieri would lift the Premier League trophy with 5000–1 outsiders Leicester City. “Football is as unpredictable as life,” states Papadopoulos.
Sport writer, Vasilis Sambrakos, believes powers higher up are largely at fault for the fall of Greek football. “Our main problem is the football federation’s regime. People who don't have any knowledge, experience or education in sports management are running the federation. This has to do with the way those guys are elected. The big clubs are trying hard to control the federation, so the criteria for the candidates are not [related to] football.”
He goes on. “Can you imagine that from all the members of the governing board of the federation, there is not a single one with experience in football? Can you imagine that the committee which takes the decisions to hire or fire a coach is made up of delegates from amateur football?”
Coaches and scouts should also accept some blame, according to Euro 2004 winner Papadopoulos. “Greece’s disadvantage is that we lack organisation. We need to focus on the new generations and on youth development.”
“The choices [of manager] were a farce” insists Lykouropoulos. “They were mistakes. We’ve now got a Dutch coach in the national team – John van ‘t Schip – who is trying to do a better job. We trust him better than the others. He was in the generation of Johan Cruyff in the Netherlands and also played for Ajax. He’s trying to correct the mistakes of the past.”
But Greece finished below Finland in their Euro 2020 qualifying group, failing to reach the finals once more. If 2004 was the peak, Greece currently finds itself at its lowest ebb.
“I have always been optimistic – this is my character,” explains Stelios Giannakopoulos. “I strongly believe that the best of Greek football is yet to come. We need to view the future positively. You never know in football.
“Winning Euro 2004 was massive, and maybe that achievement will never happen again, but at the same time nobody can stop you dreaming. If I was a player now, I would dream of winning the World Cup. This is the bottom line of being a footballer. Have dreams.”
But something suggests it’ll take more than just dreams to hurl Greece back to the upper echelons of international football once more.
Follow writer Dom Smith on Twitter @_DomSmith_