Back at the start of the finals Greece had not figured among the nine nations with title hopes alongside their Portuguese hosts: England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain plus the Czech Republic, Denmark, Holland and Sweden.
The Big Five were the biggest embarrassment. Germany, Italy and Spain all crashed in the first round and England and France fell in the quarter-finals along with Denmark and Sweden. A pedestrian Dutch side reached the semi-finals almost by default before failing to Portugal.
The ideal final in prospect would have matched Portuguese against Czechs but the Greeks had other ideas, beating the Czechs on the silver goal rule and then tarnishing the dreams of Portugal’s so-called golden generation in the final.
Thus the finals ended as they had begun with a Greek defeat of Portugal. The only difference was the scoreline. The opening match in Oporto in Group A had seen Portugal lose 2-1 to Rehhagel’s Greek surprises.
Spain, with skipper Raul badly out of form, opened in positive mode with a single goal victory over an injury-hit Russia but were then held 1-1 by Greece before losing the Iberian derby 1-0 to Portugal. The hosts managed to recover their self-belief with a 2-0 win over Russia and saw off the overly-cautious Spaniards with a second-half winner from substitute Nuno Gomes. Portugal thus topped the group ahead of Greece who suffered their only defeat of the finals by 2-1 to already-eliminated Russia.
France and England cam through from group B in that order, although it could have been the way around after their opening duel. Zinedine Zidane scored twice in stoppage time – once from a free kick, once from a penalty – to turn impending defeat into a 2-1 win. In what turned out to be a vital turning point David Beckham had missed a second-half penalty.
England qualified behind the French after demolishing the Swiss 3-0 with a double from Wayne Rooney who struck two more superb goals in a 4-2 defeat of Croatia. Manager Sven-Goran Erikisson observed later that Rooney had made the most explosive competition impact since Pele in the 1958 World Cup.
Group C produced a most dramatic climax which was horribly painful for Italy. They thought they had reached the quarter-finals when Antonio Cassano struck a stoppage time winner against Bulgaria only to find that Dennmark and Sweden, almost as late, had fashioned the 2-2 draw which condemned them to an early exit.
Veteran manager Karel Bruckner’s impressive Czechs topped Group D with a game to spare and were also the only team with a 100 per cent record after a group stage which ended with eight nations out of competition (Spain, Russia, Croatia, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Latvia) and four managrs out of job – Inaki Saez (Spain), Otto Baric (Croatia), Giovanni Trapattoni (Italy), Plamen Markov (Bulgaria) and Rudi Voller (Germany).
Portugal opened the quarter-finals in dramatic fashion by defeating England on penalties after falling behind to a second-minute goal from Michael Owen. However Rooney broke a bone in a foot and Portugal were well worth their equaliser long before Helder Postiga finally headed past David James eight minutes from time.
England thought they had won it in the last minute but Sol Campbell’s headed ‘goal’ from Beckham’s corner was ruled out contentiously by Swiss referee Urs Meier. Both sides scored in extra-time to set up a shootout in which Beckham and Darius Vassell missed decisively. Portuguese keeper Ricardo, having defied Vassell, then thumped home the winning kick himself.
Holland also benefited from a shootout to beat Sweden and the Nordic rout was completed when Denmark collapsed 3-0 to the Czechs. France lost their grip on the title when they slipped up 1-0 against the Greeks. Charisteas scored the lone goal . . . as he would against Portugal in the final.