In 19 World Cups, there’s never been a shock winner. By contrast, the Euros have seen three in 13. This is a competition where miracles can happen, says Miguel Delaney
In their second game of Euro 2004, Greece were 1-0 down to Spain and seemingly on their way back down to the bottom end of the group. In their third game of Euro 92, Denmark only had 13 minutes against France to get the goal that would keep them in the tournament.
And, in the semi-finals of 1976, Czechoslovakia saw their lead over an exceptional Dutch side cancelled out with 12 minutes to go. Reality was reasserting itself and the superior teams were about to inevitably prevail. Instead, though, the situations were all reversed. Greece equalised, Denmark scored the goal they needed, Czech Republic ended up eviscerating the Dutch and all did so by largely sticking to their original approach.
Say, for example, Spain go ahead against Ireland early on in Gdansk. Should Trapattoni’s side open up in search of an equaliser, the likelihood is that the Spanish will excel in the extra space. Keep it tight for the majority of the game, however, and Spain may get frustrated that they can’t completely kill the game off. In such situations, opportunistic equalisers are far likelier. That is exactly what Greece managed in 2004.
There’s a reason why most historical upstarts — from Wimbledon of the late ’80s to even Jack Charlton’s Ireland — all excelled at set-pieces. They’re the great equalisers. Often literally.
Unravelling the best defences in open play, after all, requires the kind of innovation and — in short, ability — that is often a little out of reach for lesser sides who have little time together.
With set-pieces, however, you don’t need Leo Messi’s quality to make them count. You just need to keep repeating them until they’re second nature; hitting the right areas with corners, making the right moves for attackers.
Just look, in 2006, how World Cup finalists France were elementarily caught out by Marco Materazzi’s header from a corner in the final. By contrast, in Euro 2004, Greece won the semi-finals and final through identical situations. Even more tellingly, both were the only goals of the game.
And that’s the real points as regards set-pieces. In a sport as low-scoring as football — and, particularly, tournament football — such isolated moments can have hugely exaggerated effects. Including penalties. Trapattoni had better prepare for them as rigorously as he does throw-ins (see facing page).
Otto Rehhagel paused. In truth, though, it seemed more about dramatic effect than thinking about the “secret to Greece’s success”. His response, nevertheless, was worth it.
“In the past, they all did as they pleased. Now, they all do what they can.”
Of course, it was Rehhagel’s very ability with words that allowed him to develop such a sense of selflessness in the Euro 2004 champions.
“They were already good players,” he explained, “but I spent three years telling them that it was the team that counts.”
Typically, it was Roy Keane who reduced international football down to its barest bones. As he said in his autobiography, the most respected countries were often “overrated and fragile” — a collection of stars rather than a true team.
And, in that fractured context, cohesion can go a long way. Where other teams can fall apart, lesser players can come together with the appropriate atmosphere. As Greece and Denmark found, it may well create a celebratory atmosphere.