Greeks honor victorious team

Tens of thousands of Greeks turned out on Monday to honor the Greek national soccer team as it returned from Portugal holding the European cup – and yesterday President Costis Stephanopoulos held them up as models for the nation that they had so delighted. «You lifted Greece from last place all the way to the top, and all of us should adopt the elements that brought the national team here, so that we can make Greece a winner in other spheres as well,» Stephanopoulos told the players at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace. This was the sedate culmination of a wild party that began last Thursday night when Greece beat the favorites, the Czechs, in the semifinal, and then intensified through a night of dancing and cheering after the Greeks beat their Portuguese hosts in the final in Lisbon on Sunday. Thousands of people in every city and town of Greece, and every part of the world where Greeks live, celebrated furiously after the national team, which had never won a match in a major competition, stunned the soccer world with its triumph. After so many years of drought, the nation savored every second of success. Television channels and newspapers presented detailed coverage of the players’ return and the way in which foreign news media covered the victory and the celebrations. Prominent throughout was the hope that the euphoria that followed the European championship would carry on into next month’s Olympics in Athens. «This great joy brings us even closer to sports. I am sure it will peak during the Olympic Games,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said before the welcoming ceremony at the ancient Panathenaic Stadium on Monday. He too pointed out what the president and every commentator has stressed for the past two weeks, saying the victory shows «how high we Greeks can climb when we believe in something, when we are united, when we work methodically and systematically.» Karamanlis also held a brief ceremony honoring the players at his office at Maximos Mansion yesterday. Opposition leader George Papandreou said this victory was a «message to the international community that Greece can win when it wants to, when we work together.» Amid the excitement, Greeks began to express fear that coach Otto Rehhagel, who is credited with bringing discipline and strategic mastery to the team and thereby leading it to the top, might be enticed to take the helm of his homeland’s drifting team. Greek Soccer Federation chief Vassilis Gagatsis was quoted as telling a German newspaper yesterday that Rehhagel has a contract with Greece until 2008. The coach countered that his contract runs until 2006. «If Mr Rehhagel stays he will bring us great satisfaction. If he leaves, we will always honor him,» President Stephanopoulos said.