Fairy-tale ending to dream run

In the biggest upset in European soccer, Greece last night beat Portugal 1-0 in a hard-fought final to win the European soccer championship, triggering an explosion of celebrations, from the 25,000 fans in the Lisbon stadium to every corner of the world where Greeks live. Just 39 days before the start of the Athens Olympics, the unexpected triumph set the scene for a summer of sports and celebrations after years of preparations. Greece, 80-1 outsiders at the start, had never won a match in major competition finals before. But the national team quickly put its stamp on this tournament by beating Portugal 2-1 in the opening game in Porto on June 12. Last night, Greece’s top scorer, Angelos Charisteas, headed the ball into the Portuguese goal from a corner in the 57th minute, giving the Greeks the winning goal in a hard and scrappy game. Both teams fought their way through the championship to meet again last night. And the circle closed with Greece once again winning. And this time its players, led by captain and man of the match Theodoris Zagorakis, lifted the European cup. Greece’s coach, Otto Rehhagel, a German, beat out Portugal’s Louis Felipe Scolari, a Brazilian, to become the first foreign coach to win a European championship. Rehhagel also denied Scolari the first of being the coach of both the world champions (Brazil) and European champions. «It’s unbelievable. It’s like a fairy tale to me,» striker Charisteas said. «I didn’t know how we would do it, but I knew that this time we would win. We came so far, we could not lose,» he said. «We are at the top of Europe. I am proud I am a Greek and we are all proud we are here.» Greece got to the final by beating the most-favored teams. First, the Greeks stunned the soccer world by beating Portugal 2-1 in the opening game. They then tied Spain 1-1 before losing 2-1 to Russia. But their four points and four goals were enough to put them through to the quarterfinals, where Greece beat the defending champions, France, by a single goal – again by Charisteas, who had scored against the Spanish. In the semifinals, they beat the favored Czech Republic 1-0. When the final whistle blew, after five minutes of extra time, it appeared as if the Greek players and fans could hardly believe that they had won the championship. But almost immediately their hugs and cheers stood in poignant contrast to the tears and exhaustion on the faces of the Portuguese players who had fought so hard to redeem themselves from their opening game’s loss and, led tirelessly by their captain Luis Figo, had come within a breath of the title. The Portuguese possessed the ball for 58 percent of the game and had 17 shots at the goal to the Greeks’ four. The hosts also won 10 corners to the single one of the Greeks, but it was that one corner which was enough for the tournament’s underdogs to put away the winner. When the Portuguese did manage to break through the determined Greek defense, their shots were usually weak or wide. Goalie Antonis Nikopolidis was always perfectly placed and managed to save the two or three shots that came hard. Perhaps the Portuguese best effort was a shot by defender Miguel in the 14th minute that Nikopolidis just managed to edge out for a corner. «The Greeks made football history today,» Rehhagel said. «It’s a sensation… The team played great football. We took advantage of our chances. The opponent was technically better than us.» His Portuguese counterpart, Scolari, said it was hard to lose this way. «We ask forgiveness from all the Portuguese because we weren’t able to achieve the goal that we all wanted,» he said.