It has been ten years since Greece pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history by winning the 2004 European Championship, in only her second appearance in the competition. Her World Cup experience at that time was limited to the 1994 tournament in the U.S., when she had been summarily dismissed in the group stage, conceding ten goals and scoring none.
Every Greek remembers those unlikely days in June and July of 2004. My most enduring memory is from a conversation I had with a young boy, Philippos, about the Greek team’s prospects of defeating the Czech Republic in the semi-final. We were on the mesmerizing Nero beach in the small deserted island of Kato Koufonisi, at the eastern end of the Cyclades islands. Walking up and down the water’s edge, I went on and on about the prowess of the Czechs, in particular about their great midfielder Pavel Nedved and his exploits that season in the Champions League. I was pessimistic, and it was showing. Philippos, all of twelve, was unfazed. He waited until I was through with all the reasons Greece’s great adventure could not continue, and said: “I think we will win.”
One of the remarkable things about that tournament was how, as it evolved, Greeks became utterly convinced that it was theirs for the taking. Against reigning champions France in the quarters, the in-form Czechs, even hosts Portugal in the final, it was nearly impossible to find anyone in the country harboring any doubts about eventual victory.
It was a symptom of a more general rise in collective self-confidence. After a turbulent twentieth century, which included foreign occupation, numerous military interventions in politics, war, and civil war, Greece was about to enter its fourth decade of peace and prosperity. It had thrown off the yoke of the military junta in 1974, joined the European Economic Community in 1981 and, in 2001, had become the twelfth member of the European common currency area. It was growing faster than almost all its Eurozone partners, in part thanks to a construction boom set off by its successful bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The naysayers, who worried that the Olympics were costing too much and that high growth rates masked overwhelming fiscal and structural weaknesses, were ignored or scorned.
Since 2004, the national soccer team has made it to all but one of the major international competitions (the exception was the 2006 World Cup). In 2010 it won its first World Cup match. In 2012, at the height of the Grexit crisis, it advanced to the quarterfinals of the European Championship. There, it lost to Germany in a politically fraught encounter, with soccer-mad chancellor Angela Merkel cheering from the VIP box and the press the following day replete with unfunny jokes about the Germans kicking the Greeks out of the Euro.
The Euro 2004 triumph, therefore, has had a lasting positive impact on Greek soccer. In another sense, though, it served the country poorly. The victory, and the subsequent successful hosting of the Olympics, solidified Greeks’ sense of accomplishment and status. It exacerbated the slide from self-confidence into complacency and hubris. Even though Eurozone membership demanded further reforms in public finance management and in crushingly overregulated labor and product markets, inertia spread like a cancer across the body politic. Tax revenue tanked and spending went through the roof, taking public debt levels along with it. In 2009, in the aftermath of Lehman, nervous bond traders were looking around for the next calamity waiting to happen. It did not take long for them to discover the rot behind Greece’s seductive exterior.
Greek soccer itself has suffered badly during Greece’s long, wrenching crisis. A number of teams, including some historic ones, have gone bankrupt and been relegated. Hooliganism continues to be a problem, often fueled by incendiary headlines in partisan newspapers or provocative exchanges between heads of opposing teams before a big game. A match-fixing scandal rocked the country in 2011 and led to high-profile indictments, though since then the wheels of justice have turned in their customary pace of a snail in a stupor, and the Greek football association has done little to rid the sport of endemic corruption. One team chairman who was arrested and spent a year in prison in relation to the affair was even elected mayor of the port city of Volos last month. There is a ubiquitous perception that referees favor the sides with the most well-connected executives and that the rules apply to the weak but not the strong. In that sense, soccer exemplifies Greece’s social breakdown.
Through it all, the national team has plodded on. Led by Fernando Santos, the dour but lovable Portuguese, who, in 2010, replaced Otto Rehhagel, the German mastermind of 2004 glory, and who will leave the post after the World Cup, it has offered its fans little aesthetic pleasure, but has proved a tough nut to crack. Many of its starting eleven have honed their skills in European leagues far more competitive than Greece’s and were hoping to make this the country’s breakthrough World Cup. Even Goldman Sachs, in the 2014 edition of its “World Cup and Economics” report, predicted a place in the last 16, despite having landed in a tricky group with no easy opponents.
In its opening game on Saturday against Colombia, Greece disappointed. It failed to convert any of the chances it created–including a diving header in an open goal that somehow rocked the crossbar instead of reaching the back of the net. Meanwhile, some sloppy defending allowed the Colombians to get three shots past goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, leading to a 3-0 rout. The next game is on Thursday against Japan, who also lost their opener (to Côte d'Ivoire) and will therefore be as desperate as the Greeks for victory.
The odds of going through to the next round, never too favorable to begin with, have gotten considerably longer. But then, the odds of winning the European Championship were much worse, as were those of economic recovery or even continued membership of the Eurozone two years ago.
Since the days of Themistocles, the Greeks have thrived on underdog status. If the national side, which has become more adept at weathering defeats in the last decade, can find its form–and its luck–in the next two matches, anything is possible. Of all the nations in the World Cup, its population, after six years of economic depression, is among those most in need of a few wins.