The non-calm after the victory storm

The superlatives have all been said and the cliches cloned for public consumption (once you’ve designated your national team «gods» and their coach a king, there’s not much room for an encore), and all the shouting has finally subsided following Greece’s improbable victory in the Euro 2004 soccer championship. It really was a remarkable, fairy-tale run, with victory correspondingly sweet. Success was sudden, yet the Greek team was no one-match wonder; it built up to a crescendo, match after gripping match (just one loss in six games), until, like Hillary scaling Everest, it discovered there was no more uphill to go. Greece had found itself atop the European heap, with all the euphoria that exertion at high altitude brings. It came at a golden time, little more than a month before the Olympics commence in this great if flawed old city. (And there was a striking similarity between the crowd picture taken from high in the Panathenaic Stadium, splashed over world newspapers the next day, and the scenes of delirium there when Spyros Louis won his marathon race in 1896.) Greece needed a psychological boost, and got it when its national team come out of nowhere to steal the crown away from the cream of European and world soccer, including defending titleholders France in the quarterfinals and hosts Portugal, which it beat in its first and last games. After all the delays, construction, infighting and escalating Olympic budgets, Athenians were overdue for some good news on the sports front. Building on success For the Olympics preparations, however, the win did not turn around a dire situation but rather solidified, in spectacular fashion, a string of recent successes. Often the most striking victories are not self-standing but rather reinforce previous successes (like Alexander the Great building on Philip of Macedon’s empire). In this case, much has already been achieved since late winter. The dark days of March were full of concern over the Calatrava roof; the International Olympic Committee was chafing about Greece’s need to focus on the basics; the marathon route was a new/old mess, with a contractor gone bankrupt and its work being dug up to fix all the mistakes it had made; and of renewed security jitters after the terrorist bombings on Madrid’s commuter trains and the IOC’s taking out of a Games cancellation insurance policy. Since then, hope has gradually displaced the worst fears. Like the win in Portugal, this too came in stages: the great sigh of relief at the fitting of the Calatrava roof; the successful testing of the main stadium at a sports event; the full green light given by the Coordination Commission in its final visit; and the completion of the tram system (to operate commercially within days). All is far from perfect: the security system, just officially handed over yesterday, is still unfinished, while too much of Athens – not least long stretches of Syngrou Avenue, along which hordes will travel next month – remains in an unfinished, blockaded mess. Still, Euro 2004 was an exclamation mark that announces the Olympic summer in the grandest possible style. Football lessons We can revel in the victory, but what can we learn from it? Some lessons have been picked over pretty well, like the need for teamwork and the value of hard work. We could add a few here, easily applicable to the Olympic effort underway and still to come. One lesson is the need for pace and caution alongside action, which Greece’s defensive-oriented game, efficient but unspectacular, reinforced. In the entire «knockout» round, Greece won all three games by identical scores of 1-0; and each of its goals came, at the earliest, midway through the second half. In the semifinal, it was at the end of an overtime period, after over 100 minutes of play. Now that’s patience. And one goal was enough in each case. There’s a big, general lesson here. A summer of sport doesn’t mean a summer of leisure; for most it means grinding away and more hours, a marathon of work as well as of sport, as too many people will get too little time off. There is a real danger in that. You can work a week, two weeks at a stretch without a break, but a flat-out effort for two months can’t be done well. Burnout is a real danger for many. It’s simply impossible to keep a top level of vigilance for so long, to run long distances at sprint speed, whatever your line of work. Everyone had better watch it and pace himself without trying to do everything in non-stop Olympian manner this Olympic summer. Another thing the team demonstrated was a marvelous ability to respond to challenges and bounce back from adversity. This was partly by taking advantage of opportunities that came its way. In the final, against Portugal, the opposing team had some 10 corner kick opportunities, and converted none; Greece had but one the whole game – and converted it for the game winner. It also responded when it had to. The third and final game of the group round, against Russia, was possibly the most crucial of all, for Greece could easily have blown their chance to make it past the preliminaries. The team fell behind quickly, giving up two goals before they could break a sweat. Then the team regrouped and scored a crucial goal that reduced the deficit to 2-1 and got them through. All that enabled the march to the cup. And that is what the Olympics will be about: responding to adversity and the unexpected. You can plan for years and still not know what will happen when humans are involved. Things can and will go wrong. Getting everybody where they are supposed to be and when will be a herculean task; and the critical decisions in the first days of the Games to rectify any problems will test everyone. A third, more sober lesson has to do with crowd control. One can imagine the IOC being none too pleased about scenes of the triumphant team bus inching its way through jubilant crowds spilling into the roadways, waving flares and flags, joyfully shutting down Athens for an entire weekday evening. Thankfully, the crowds were in a great mood, celebrating a national win and only that. In this respect it really was a remarkable scene on Monday. But if anything untoward had happened in its midst, pandemonium could have resulted without officials or police being able to do anything about it. Many happy returns The soccer team’s triumphal return to Greece was only the first of three returns to Greek soil in this week alone. Another came the next day, in the form of an IOC inspection team to review progress, talk to officials, and check venue readiness. Coordination Commission visits are now past, but the IOC has a vital interest in ensuring it’s all on track. Known details were few as the inspectors came to look, not talk. The third return, for which publicity is not just necessary but essential, is happening today; the return of the Olympic Flame to Greek soil after its whirlwind worldwide tour that started on June 3. Arriving in Iraklion, Crete, the torch will wind through hamlets and villages around Greece before arriving in the Athens area on August 11 for the opening ceremony two days later. The torch, like the team, is a way to involve Greeks well outside the capital in the sporting life of 2004. It will be like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, drawing those mesmerized by its tune along in its wake. Plenty have been already, although the magic of the Flame could not overcome decades of animosity on Cyprus; the dip into Northern Cyprus had to be scrapped. The German coach and Greece’s team made quite a pair, a nice prelude to the IOC and Greece trying to team up for the Games. The triumph in Portugal is a great prelude but a stiff example to emulate.