Scoring a dream goal

These lines were written in the heady hours ahead of Greece’s game against France in the quarterfinals of the European Soccer Championship in Portugal last night. The country was poised somewhere between euphoria and despair, in one of those pivotal moments that make a nation identify itself with a team. As the kickoff at 9.45 p.m. drew closer, the whole country appeared to hold its breath in the quiet before the storm that would lead either to the calm of the understanding that the Greek players had distinguished themselves but had reached the limits of their talents, or the heights of delirium brought on by impossible victory. No Greek soccer team had got beyond the first round of any major competition. At the World Cup in 1998, the Greeks conceded 10 goals in three games and did not score once. That was the heavy legacy this team labored under as it won game after game to reach the opening round of the Euro finals. And suddenly, on June 12, when the Greeks stunned the hosts, one of the favorites, with a 2-1 win in the opening game, Greece rocketed from the worldly cynicism of low expectations to the confidence of potential champions. On June 16, a 1-1 draw with mighty Spain cemented the fact that Greece’s presence in Portugal was no fluke. From eternal underlings, Greece’s sports fans now adopted the swagger of contenders. It was a little like the Eurovision song contest, in that when the Greeks saw they had a possible winner in sexy Sakis Rouvas just about everyone got sucked in by the excitement, pushing the television audience of the contest’s finals to a record 85 percent. (Sakis came third, leading to the customary accusations of dark alliances colluding against sunny Greece.) Now, as in the Eurovision contest, many began to act as if we had the next game in the bag. The hyperbole of the Greeks was outgunned by some foreign commentators, especially some German news media that elevated German coach Otto Rehhagel to the level of a Greek god. He was not only referred to as King Otto (being the second German in Greece’s history to carry that name, the newly independent state having been given a Bavarian prince as its first monarch in 1833), but also as Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. The patronizing nature of the commentary was forgiven, or ignored, in the stampede of good feelings. And the story was fit for a television movie. A coach, forgotten in his own country, takes over a team of perennial losers and, through hard work and discipline, manages to draw out the best in each and forges them into a team that conquers the world. But the paradigm of made-for-TV movies is not the only one. There is also Greek tragedy, with its message that anyone who flies too high has his wings burned. Fortunately for Greece, the gods (the ones on Olympus, not on the team bus) were kind enough to provide a warning that singed a lot of proud feathers but did not lead to the Greeks crashing out of the championship. A hungry Russian team which had lost its two earlier games, took the Greeks by surprise with a goal in the second minute and another in the 17th, in their game on June 20. A goal by Zissis Vryzas in the 43rd revived Greece’s hopes but the team still lost. For much of the match, the Greeks appeared to be in disarray, with their defenses haphazard and their shooting off target. They looked shaken but they fought on, managing to score the goal that gave them hope. And then, like deus ex machina, the happy ending came from the Portuguese defeat of the Spaniards on the same night. Portugal had six points while Greece and Spain tied with 4, but the Greeks qualified because they had scored 4 goals and let in four, whereas the Spaniards had scored 2 and let in 2. Greece lost but got through to the quarterfinals. The goddess Tyche was on their side. The result was that last night, in Lisbon, Greece faced France – the defending European champion and the team that won the World Cup in 1998, the same championship in which Greece covered itself in goalless glory. In the most obvious narrative framework, the meeting was a match between soccer’s David and Goliath, with no guarantee that it would end the way the original one did. But the Greeks could look back to the fact that France crashed out of the last World Cup in the first round, losing to Senegal in the very first match. This does not mean that the same thing could happen here again. But it is a reminder that there are 11 men on each side and a round ball. Like the duel between the giant and the boy, the result cannot be determined in advance. Experience would advise that the giant will triumph, but hope always rises in the weaker one’s breast, a hope based on countless upset victories in sports, in wars, in love. The gods might have made their plans (or they might be otherwise engaged). The players in each team might be at the peak of their powers, or rising, or in decline. One coach might be better than the other, or have a better understanding of his players’ capabilities. Some players might be great in their regular league teams while others shine when they play for their country. There are innumerable factors that cannot be changed but which affect how each team will play. But the one thing that players can determine is how much of themselves they will put into the game. And the Greeks were definitely prepared to give everything and were carrying less baggage than the French, who had to prove to the world that they could regain past glories in this championship. The French also had a hard time hitting their stride in their previous games. But when they did… Zinedine Zidane scored two goals in extra time to give France victory over England, and Thierry Henry scored twice in the last 15 minutes of the game to turn a 1-1 draw with Switzerland into a 3-1 victory. The lessons for the Greeks were clear: The French might seem to be losing the match, but they had the reserves of skill and determination to hammer down the heralds of defeat and race to victory. Rehhagel, the undisputed architect of Greece’s success, hit the right notes at a news conference on Thursday, marveling at how far the team had come, taking the stress off his players and appealing to their deep reserves of patriotic fervor in language calculated to inspire the 11 million players at home. «What we all dreamed of has happened,» he said. «My players have no anxiety. They will play for the enjoyment of the game… and if we fall, we will fall like Greeks, like heroes.» Very Churchillian, but it did not quite hide the anxiety that anyone would feel when playing (or watching) such an important match – heroics aside, no one would want to see their side suffer a crushing defeat. Hope and fear walk hand-in-hand. But no matter what the outcome, beyond winning games, this team’s success has been against the evils that undermine so many Greek endeavors. Rehhagel held out against the vicious criticism he faced when he did not bring victory in his very first game as coach. The players submitted to his discipline, worked hard and turned into a team that did not lose any games in the qualifying rounds. Many of them play in foreign leagues and have learned that winning comes from playing well and hard and not from complaining about the other team or the ref. This being the national team, it was also free of the hooliganism and rackets that control the game and have driven true fans from the stadiums. The success of this team is that it has planted the clean joy of the game in our hearts again. And that is a goal no one could have dreamed of.

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