A rising soccer star

Suddenly, Greece’s national soccer squad has found itself in the unprecedented position of being close to a quarterfinal place in a major international championship, following yesterday’s 1-1 draw against Spain. Showing the stubbornness and fighting spirit that helped clinch the 2-1 victory over hosts Portugal in the curtain raiser of the Euro 2004 championships – but this time against a much more impressive opponent – Greece overcame a first-half Spanish goal to equalize 24 minutes from the final whistle. Dogged defense in the face of overwhelming pressure secured the single point of a draw, retaining Greece – together with Spain – at the top of Group A with four points. Now, the national squad needs only a draw against Russia in its last first-round match on Sunday to play in the quarterfinals. «We have a huge opportunity to move into the next stage and the boys must take it,» national coach Otto Rehhagel said after yesterday’s game in Oporto’s Bessa stadium. «We wanted to play with the same passion (as during the win over Portugal) but the boys overdid it and we quickly ended up with three yellow cards,» he said. Greece ended up with five yellow cards, against Spain’s two, one of which cost Giorgos Karagounis – scorer of the first goal against Portugal on Saturday – a ban from Sunday’s encounter. «The Spaniards moved the ball around better and they were pressing us but we fought on, took a great risk with three strikers and finally got the equalizer,» Rehhagel said. «But we need to improve our last 15 minutes, when we have problems getting the ball out of defense.» Scorer Angelos Charisteas said the result confirmed to all doubters that Greece has a «strong and serious team.» «We proved that the win against Portugal wasn’t a fluke,» he said. Team captain Theodoros Zagorakis, who had a solid performance and drove two dangerous shots at the Spanish posts before the equalizer, voiced relief with the draw. «Thank God for keeping us strong and helping us come this far,» he said. «Yet again, we managed to make the whole world pay attention to Greece.»