How Greece’s national soccer team managed the long, hard road to the Euro 2004 final

« I have never played against such a serious team as Greece before,» said famous Czech soccer player Pavel Nedved, leader of the Czech national team, the moving force behind Juventus and winner of the best player award for 2003. Something is definitely happening here. Those who claimed our national team’s successes were mere coincidence, and those who believe the kind of game the Greek teams play was «killing soccer,» have all been silenced. It was Nedved who said the key word: «serious.» This is the element that had been missing from our team and is perhaps the secret to its current success. Working as a team Over the past three years, coach Otto Rehhagel and his players have bonded to the degree necessary to transform a group of people into a team. After the 0-2 defeat by Ukraine in Kiev and the beginnings of familiar murmurings, the German coach got what he wanted – a team of ambitious young men who have the qualifications to succeed. What had been missing was the serious approach, the «Doric» rhythm that dictates the avoidance of any superfluous move, any superfluous individual effort, conserving every shred of energy. The Greek national team had, in fact, to play for the result. And that’s what it did. From that day on, the team lost none of the games in the preliminary to the final round of Euro 2004! It beat Armenia twice (2-0 and 1-0), Ireland twice (2-0 and 1-0), got its revenge on Spain and Ukraine, qualifying top of its group. Europe was already talking about a miracle defense! Model and motivation Without the fanfare of «officials» in his way, Rehhagel easily turned the national team into a «closed group,» insisting on the same members, with the exception of some necessary changes due to injury (Kyriakos-Constantinidis), or departures (Antzas). No one can say that there were better Greek players – in Greece or abroad – than Kapsis or Fyssas, Georgiadis or Kaffes. The group was complete, Rehhagel could swing into action. His first task was to inspire his team with the confidence that above all they were playing for themselves. He had already sent Charisteas to Werder Bremen, Karagounis had already transferred to Inter, Dellas to Roma and Vryzas to Perugia. Benfica had drawn Fyssas for a fee he never could have earned in Greece, Nikolaidis transferred to Atletico for a large sum. So the models were there, along with the motivation. Even before the competition began in Portugal, European champion Porto made Seitaridis a very generous offer, paying Panathinaikos 3 million euros for him. The coach didn’t need to say much. The Greek soccer players’ destiny was to change on the playing fields of Portugal. Among the first to realize this was the soccer players’s union (PSAT) who stood by them. Statements the players made in Greece had a common refrain: «The national team is playing for us all.» Positive energy It was the first time the Greek national team had collected so much positive energy. In the 1980 European Championship, soccer was little more than amateur. At the World Cup in 1994, officials turned the national team into an acting troupe! This time, Rehhagel achieved the absolute, by keeping shady characters out of the changing rooms and garnering only positive energy. With the exception of a few isolated cases who were given media time, most so-called soccer experts abided by the national team’s wishes. It didn’t take much to realize that something good would come out of the collective effort and willpower. For the first time, thousands of Greeks traveled abroad to watch the team play. One victory followed another, beginning with the Portuguese, tying with the Spaniards, entering the final eight for the last time, playing against the French, world and European champions. There were 15,000 Greeks in the stands in Porto, sending out waves of optimism and confidence to the Greek players. ‘Cobra’ team Europe was speechless in the face of the Greek miracle, as a British newspaper called it. Rehhagel created a «cobra» team that hypnotized its opponent, tired it out and struck at the right moment. We saw it against Spain, France and the Czechs. The cobra rises up for 90 minutes and reaches out on the horizontal only when it is ready to strike. The players were motivated, optimistic, driven and – for the first time – had all Greeks behind them. The national team had won a following! At a time when there are few opportunities for a national surge of fervor, our team managed to get us up out of our armchairs. Soccer, no matter what anyone says, is still the king of sports. In 1987, Greece may have been set on fire by winning the European basketball championship, but feelings did not run quite as high as now. Soccer has an added clout. No one knows that better than Otto Rehhagel, who at the age of 65 is enjoying the fruits of his decision to assume the post of coach in a country like Greece, where soccer, on a team level, is the realm of godfathers and other shady characters. It was simple. The team is its players and its coach. Everyone else is out. Simple and effective. Just as it should be in all sectors of sport. Last night in Lisbon, Greece’s national team played against Portugal on its home ground in the final of Euro 2004. Nothing else mattered but effort and positive energy. As our prime minister, an avid soccer fan, said: «In our hearts, the national team of all Greeks is already the champion.» Homecoming for heroes The official welcome home ceremony for the Euro 2004 Greek national team takes place at 8.30 p.m. tonight at the Panathenaic Stadium. It is organized by the Ministry of Culture, the General Secretariat for Sports and the Athens Municipality.