His eyes are red, puffy. He winces, stretching his lip over his teeth like Bogart, then blinks into the heavens. A teenager has been denied something he felt entitled to, and the tears can wait no more. Ten years later, there is still something marvelous about watching Cristiano Ronaldo cry.
Euro 2004 was his first tournament, and it was mine as well. A newly-forged soccer fan, it had taken me a year to grasp what Ronaldo learned in 90 minutes: soccer is cruel. While American sports preoccupy themselves with parity, football is strictly old-world. The nobility win and the peasants lose, every single year. Except, of course, in 2004.
The Greek national team came to Portugal an afterthought. They had never won a game in a major tournament, and were offered up as a sacrifice in the opening match: a lesser squad for Ronaldo and his elders to feast upon. I skipped the opener, expecting a blowout, but the Greeks scrambled their way to a 2-1 victory, teaching me my first lesson of the Euros: never look away. Those two goals would be the most Greece would score in any match. The rest of the way, one would be enough.
In Portugal, Greece were confronted by the greatest stars of the decade prior, from the galacticos Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Raúl to Patrick Swayze-lookalike Pavel Nedvd. Faced by an infinite gap in talent, Greek manager Otto Rehhagel decided to break the game. His men clogged the goalmouth, marking the opposing team so thoroughly that their playmakers had no chance to show off. And once they dragged the finest teams in Europe into the mud, they tore them apart like savage pigs.
When a $200 million Chelsea team resorts to these tactics, the game is unwatchable. But Greece lacked the skill to shut their opponents down completely. In every match, two or three shots would whiz just past their goal, or right into the keepers hands—equalizers that didn't come only because of fate, or luck, or whatever word the ancient Greeks might have had for offensive ineptitude. More knowledgeable fans called these games boring, but I thought it was better to win ugly than to lose pretty. Guerrilla tactics had long served the Greeks in war—why deny it to them on the pitch? Kill the game. Scorch the earth. Remember Thermopylae.
After a narrow escape from the group stages, the Greeks faced France in the quarter finals. The defending champions, France were led not just by Zidane but by Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, and Robert Pirès, who had just led Arsenal to England's first undefeated season since the 19th century. The Greeks had had their fun, and it was time to be shown to the abattoir. But the match remained goalless for over an hour, until Theodoros Zagorakis showed an uncharacteristic bit of style, tapping the ball yards over the head of a French defender, running past him, and putting in a perfect cross for the deciding goal.
It's the sort of thing Zidane would have done, only he didn't. The year he was voted the best European player since 1954, the Greek midfield took him out of the game altogether. For club or country, he would never win another trophy.
In the semis came the Czech Republic. They were riding a narrative of their own, having qualified for the quarter finals with a brilliant three goal comeback against the Dutch, but they were no match for the smothering Greek defense. Nedved left with an injury in the first half, and the Czech verve went with him.
By extra time, as players from both sides collapsed with cramps, the game remained scoreless. The Czechs were eager for a penalty shootout, where their young star Petr Cech would restore balance to the universe. He never got the chance. Moments before the end of the first period of extra time, the Czechs fell asleep defending a corner. Cech was motionless as Traianos Dellas headed the ball past him: a silver goal, good enough to win it. The Greeks, inexplicably, were in the final.
Though I didn't know it at the time, I was perhaps the only non-Greek on the planet charmed by all this. Ten years later, as we enjoy the most exciting World Cup in recent memory, Euro 2004 is remembered as a nadir. Fans turn to international tournaments not for narrative, but for brilliant play. (A shame, because they almost never get it.) After watching their club struggle all year, likely coming nowhere near a title, they tune into a tournament ready to invest in France or Brazil or Holland or anyone who can deliver on the promise of the beautiful game. It's meant as an escape from the drudgery of club football, and Greece spoiled the party.
In Lisbon, Portugal would have a chance to revenge themselves against the team that had ruined their tournament opener. They were led not just by Ronaldo, but by the leather-faced vestiges of their golden generation: Rui Costa and Luís Figo. Victors in the 1989 Youth World Championship, they had spent fifteen years failing to fulfill their promise. This would be their last chance.
The Greeks, whom the Guardian called "the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten," continued to ride their luck. They scored early in the second half. It was their only corner of the match, their only shot on target, and, of course, the only goal they would need. Near-misses by Ronaldo, Figo, and Rui Costa were not enough to rattle them. They hung on. They won. And Ronaldo cried and cried.
I don't enjoy watching him sob quite as much as I did in 2004, when I filled with rage every time I saw his trademark look of entitled astonishment. Though not yet brilliant, he was on his way to greatness, and I took vicious pleasure in watching him trip up. As I've grown older, I've shed my instinct to root strictly for the underdog. I've witnessed enough sports to know that most upsets are simply a good team faltering, and that's not something to root for. Watch enough lousy soccer—or baseball, or football, or tennis—and you hunger for excellence. Forget the narrative. I just want to see the best play like the best.
I paid around $200 to watch the 2004 Euros on Pay-Per-View. This was long before ESPN took interest in the tournament, and there were times that summer when it seemed like it was broadcast for my enjoyment alone. After a year as a soccer fan, I was hungry to see the Zidane and Nedved, Figo and Totti, Oliver Kahn and Fabian Barthez. When I became a fan, they were already giants, with legends founded on deeds that I could only read about. Every year, the world has a new greatest player, but they are younger than me now, human-sized. No footballer will ever loom larger than the Zidane of 2004.
Most of those players would appear in the 2006 World Cup, but that would be a sad final act. 2004 broke their spell. Cristiano Ronaldo had learned an essential lesson about sport, and so had I: greatness fades quickly. I came to Portugal to watch titans, but I fell in love with eleven hardy Greeks—the team that made the gods of football weep.