12th June 2004 is a day that will live in infamy for Portuguese football.
In front of a sell-out crowd before the majestic Estadio Do Drago under the stern and protrudingly watchful eyes of referee Pierluigi Collina, the Golden Generation of Portuguese football seems set to pass into history as the Lost Generation of "never men". Not even "nearly men" since they did not manage to reach the final two of any major competition.
This was perhaps their last chance to redeem lost glories and a tarnished reputation after an early exit from the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and the shocking defeats at the hands of the traditional minnows, namely the Koreans and the Americans.
But the Portuguese response to the defeat of 2002 was peculiarly muted and far from inspiring. Defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, more so when one has to do it in your own back yard but incidentally at the end of the game, the only trouble makers were not the dismayed and disappointed Portuguese fans but the merry Englishmen who had a drop too many.
Portugal had boasted the best footballers as far as individual skill is concerned, but by 2004, reality had harshly shown that these players - although supremely gifted and blessed with twinkling feet and deft toes - seemingly falter when it matters the most. And this occasion was perhaps the best illustration that their critics would ever need.
Luis Figo and Manuel Ruis Costa displayed an uncanny rapport with a football but sadly they do not demonstrate the same level of telepathy with their team mates. The wizardry and silky moves of these midfield maestros came screeching to an abrupt halt before a resolute and unassailable Greek phalanx. At the same time, the Portuguese strike force ran aground and fell a yard short on every occasion to every Greek defender at the scene.
There was also the young and prodigious Cristano Ronaldo whose talent will no doubt carry the hopes for the future Portuguese football, but this was a game that he would rather forget, after giving away a decisive penalty to the Greeks which the gleeful Bassinas were to convert with consumate ease. By that 52nd minute, it seemed to be all over and if there was any doubt as to whether a Greek victory was a foregone conclusion , the Portuguese effectively saw to it with their efforts at equalizing.
Then, there was Deco, the naturalised Portuguese citizen from Brazil. Again, despite the silky moves and mazy runs, his best attempts at creating a goal and shots on the Greek goal fell way short of the mark. This was the man whose individual brilliance had seen the Portuguese club side FC Porto win the Champions League, Europe's most prestigious club competition. However, once removed from his Brazilian team mates playing in that team, Deco looked like a Spaniard lost among his new found Portuguese team mates.
Special mention should be made of the Portuguese defence. In Couto, Andrade Ferriera and Maniche, the Portuguese defence looked mean and credible. Cuoto was the old warhorse who will always be remembered for that audacious overhead kick in Euro 1996. Andrade had just been voted the best defender in La Liga not too long ago. Maniche and Ferreira played for FC Porto , the European Club champions.
But obviously on the pristine green pitch of the Estadio Do Drago that day, their performance had left much to be desired. The first goal looked surprisingly easy for the Greeks and one must venture to suggest that had the Portuguese defence been more alert and less nervous, Karagounis, the Greek goalscorer would not have found himself in such a perfect position to drill a low shot under the hapless Portuguese keeper.
Andrade and Maniche were strange bedfellows who must have missed each other too much after the former left FC Porto a year ago to play in Spain, such that they cannot operate on the same wavelength. Couto, on the other hand, was surprisingly anonymous.
All credit to Karagounis though for the confidence and elegance at which he took his chance at the Portuguese goal. And that was only seven minutes into the game.
Things could not have gotten worse at the start of the second half after Ronaldo gave away the penalty. And the rest as history.
Was it a fluke Greek victory ??
The warning signs were already there. The Greeks had qualified top of their group after a memorable victory against the Spanish in Spain. This Greek team boasts of no star players and in fact the names of most of the Greek players would seem unfamiliar to many followers of European football
Traditionally, Greece is more well-known as the birthplace of the Olympics rather than as a force in European football. The Greek national team had historically been plagued by internal scuffles between Greek players of different domestic clubs and there had never been a recognisable Greek name in the Hall of Fame of European football. At least Portugal has had a Eusebio whose exploits in the 1966 World Cup had given him a place among football's all time greats. Afterall, the Class of 1966 had beaten the legendary Brazilians with Pele among their number.
Be that as it may, the Greek team that finished off Portugal's golden generation was incredibly well-drilled and well-organised, playing a wholesome and postive attacking game while at the same time, maintaining a rock solid and uncompromising defence. This has to go to the credit of their new national coach, Rehhagel. His arrival saw a drastic turn in the fortunes of this Greek national team during the qualifiers which cumulated in the famous victory against the Spanish.
Football is a strange game indeed. What surprises hold when the Greeks entertain the Spanish, who had been plotting their revenge since that agonizing defeat by the Greeks months earlier? Surely this time, nobody will underestimate the Greeks.