A decade ago, a Greek national side that had never won a Euro tournament game in its history entered the 2004 competition as a 250-to-1 underdog. It emerged victorious in what some called the most remarkable underdog story in the history of international soccer.
Others called it the most boring.
France, the reigning European champions, were dispatched by Greece in a 1-0 quarterfinals match. The Czech Republic, perhaps the most talented team at the tournament, were sent home after an extra time goal gave Greece a 1-0 win in the semifinals. To cap things off, the Greeks handed hosts Portugal a (you guessed it) 1-0 loss in Lisbon in the final.
Three clean sheets and three opportunistic winning goals (two scored on headed corner kicks and one on a headed cross). On paper, it might appear like nail-biting soccer. Perhaps it was to the Greeks, but to most of the world is was tedious and boring.
The Greeks played defensive football. Unimaginative football. Heck, cynical football.
Manager Otto Rehhagel, realizing his side was often overmatched in talent, crafted a defensive-minded strategy that saw his squad sit back and slowly asphyxiate their opponents’ attack. Greece only committed players forward for corner kicks and set pieces, and even then, they were quick to retreat and rebuild their wall of defense.
Outlast was the mantra. Win the battle of attrition. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
Somehow, either through sheer luck or the genius of Rehhagel’s plan, the Greeks were able to hold strong defensively and capitalize on crucial moments to emerge as unlikely champions.
"People tell me my tactics are not modern, but modern football is about winning” Rehhagel said, defensively, of his defense-first gameplans.
Indeed, his tactics weren’t modern. They might as well have been ancient.
After all, the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about the importance of a strong, organized defense on the field of battle.
Ancient Greek soldiers were trained to fight shoulder-to-shoulder in phalanx formation, shields overlapping and spears pointed forward. This formation minimized points of weakness and confounded the Greeks’ less organized opponents. A Greek warrior’s greatest weapon wasn’t his sword or spear, it was his shield — and his superior strategy.
The phalanx democratized warfare. No longer were acts of individual valor the key to winning battles (and the hearts of civilians). In phalanx formation, warriors were equals. Armed with a shield and basic training, a farmer could rapidly become an effective soldier.
The legendary Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the basis for the highly stylized film “300”, is perhaps the best example of “the best offense is a good defense” mentality. At Thermopylae, an alliance of Greek city-states numbering only 7,000 men (including 300 highly trained Spartans) stood strong against an invading Persian force scholars believe ranged between 100,000 and 250,000 men.
For seven days, including three of heavy battle, the vastly outnumbered Greek forces prevented the Persians from advancing down the only passable road to Athens. They held their phalanx formation and repelled wave after wave of Persian attackers.
Was what the Greeks did in 2004 so different? Lacking the star players needed to win a wide-open game of skill, Rehhagel adapted Greece’s defense to negate its opponents’ best players. Though the squad’s shape on the pitch wasn’t as simple as a line of soldiers with shields linked, it was almost as impenetrable. They key for the Greeks was closing off points of attack — the team always kept a spare defender back to plug any holes that sprung when his teammates were stretched too thin — and holding strong until the final minute.
The Greek forces ultimately fell at Thermopylae, but not before inflicting severe casualties on their enemies. In the end, the difference in manpower was simply too large to overcome. There’s no manpower advantage on the pitch, however, and tournaments have something battles don’t: defined end points. Survive long enough and you emerge with the trophy.
Can Greece’s 2004 strategy work in Brazil? Modern history isn’t on the squad’s side. Since 2004’s magical run, the nation’s results at major tournaments have disappointed. Perhaps current head coach Fernando Santos would be wise to look not only to predecessor Rehhagel for tactical inspiration, but also to the Ancients.