Every goal counts

The triumphal expedition of the Greek soccer team in Portugal has sparked an outpouring of emotion among Greeks that combines raw pride with the effort to understand how this has been accomplished. The German coach, Otto Rehhagel, is justly praised for creating a squad that is a team and not an opportunistic coalition of stars. He has pushed the players to peak physical fitness. He has based his strategy on the full exploitation of the team’s strengths and the best possible eradication of its weaknesses. This is what coaches are supposed to do. But, for us Greeks, a coach coaching is as rare as anyone else doing his job (whether he be a plumber or a tax department employee), so Rehhagel has been raised to mythical proportions by a press and public that are notorious for the speed with which they create idols and then, at the first doubts, destroy them. We talk of the team’s levelheadedness and moderation, as if this is some glorious virtue bestowed on a select few while the rest of us are cursed to squint forever through the fog of frivolity and moodiness that plague our nation. We note that the lessons of the national soccer team would be of great benefit if applied to the rest of our society. All this is true. And it is wonderful that we should have such a sparkling reminder of the virtues of hard work and dedication to a specific target – in this case, the winning of one game at a time against opponents who were often seen as vastly superior. (The only team that we have played against which we considered easy were the Russians, and they beat us 2-1). But all this talk tends to stray into the sphere of the sentimental, the abstract, the metaphysical. That is why Rehhagel is hyped up into some mythical being, the team’s victories are seen as dreams and fairy tales and the virtues of the players are seen as a supernatural potion that can cure all ills. Identifying the team’s achievements with the epic struggles of Greeks through their history is natural for a nation that, until now, has not had much to brag about on the fields of the world’s most popular game – neither in international competition nor in wretched domestic leagues riven with crowd violence, debt and cheating. Seeing the team and its players as role models because of their achievement is also understandable, as we all know the serious problems that Greece faces and the less-than-serious efforts that are made to tackle them. But there is a danger that by looking at the forest, we will miss the trees – the players who have made the team what it is. The truth is that unity and team work can take you only so far. What every team needs to succeed is the talented and hard-working individuals who lead selflessly, who follow with conviction, who go the extra mile, who give everything they have and then find more and give that too. Greek history is so full of self-sacrifice in the pursuit of liberty and the defense of freedom that it is a sign of how different our world is today that we can even talk about such heroism with regard to a soccer match without appearing sacrilegious. But the soccer team functions as a metaphor for many aspects of Greek society, precisely because the climate of victory allows us to debate things in a spirit of unity without falling into the trap of name-calling and despair that accompany the wisdom garnered from defeat. And this is where the players of our current national soccer squad, as individuals, personify much of what is good and exemplify how much can be attained when people are put together in a way that their talents multiply in pursuit of a common goal. But, above all, these players should show us that in order to have a good team you have to have good individual players. They need not be the greatest and most expensive stars – of the type that the Greeks managed to embarrass throughout this tournament – but they need to be the strong building blocks the coach can work with to build his defense and his attack, and plan his overall strategy. These players came from somewhere before Rehhagel selected them and developed them, before he made them parts of a whole. They may have come from different directions, with some having played abroad for at least part of their careers, while others have played only in Greece. Some are young, others are nearing the end of their careers. But they have proved that they like one another and they give their best to each other. They also have a work ethic that should make them role models for every Greek. Throughout this tournament we have seen every Greek player giving everything he had and we have not seen a single player keep the ball to himself when a pass will be more useful to the team. The players have been selfless and fearless. In the semifinal against the Czechs, when both teams were exhausted, the Greeks took control and, for the 15 minutes of extra time, kept the Czechs pinned down in their box. That was when we felt that there was a lot more than skill and discipline to the Greek team. This was when, like something that had suddenly become distilled, the Greeks showed that they, more than the Czechs, wanted to win. And it was then that fortune, which had helped the Greeks so generously throughout the game, stood aside and the team scored the goal that sent it to the final. Here is it worth noting that every single goal that the Greeks scored in Portugal was critical. They beat the Portuguese 2-1 in the opening game. If they had drawn or lost, they would not have got to the quarterfinals. They drew 1-1 with Spain, giving them a precious point that allowed them to proceed. In their 2-1 loss to Russia, their single goal allowed them to beat out the Spaniards (who also had four points) on the basis of the total number of goals scored. In the quarterfinals, the Greeks beat the storied French (the defending champions) 1-0, just as they did the favorites, the Czechs. If any one of these six goals had not been scored, the Greeks would be at home today. And it is significant that five players scored them (with young striker Angelos Charisteas scoring against Spain and France). Not only does every goal count, so does every player. But as we sing the praises of our soccer stars, it is worth remembering that aside from their excellent play and remarkable qualities as individuals, the national squad’s players are among the wealthiest Greeks – especially now with the bonuses that they will get for reaching the finals and which have still not been determined. Their efforts are recognized both in terms of public adulation and in wealth. Not many Greeks share such incentives. But what the squad’s players have in common with those special Greeks that you find everywhere (and this applies to all nations, of course) is their love for what they do, and their desire to do it well. It is these unsung heroes – whether they be construction workers, power-line repairmen, doctors, civil servants, academics or entrepreneurs – who, without any incentives keep the country functioning. These people fight against the overwhelming odds presented by a public administration that is cluttered with useless people and unnecessarily complicated procedures, who find that they are not rewarded for what they achieve nor are those who stand in the way penalized. And yet they do their best, because they owe it to themselves and those around them. That is why so many Greeks who live in other countries are successful. They are not fighting a vindictive and useless «system» but, instead, are able to use their inspiration and their hard work to create, to get ahead, to be useful to those around them. Abroad, the Greeks play on a level field. At home, the goalmouth is so cluttered with people who may or may not be on the same side that it is very difficult to score. If the victories of Greece on the distant Iberian peninsula are to be of any use at home (other than cause for the drooling of television and politicians), they must serve as a lesson, not of the need for teamwork, which we understand already, but of the need to promote the good player and get the bad one out of his or her way. Our society needs to judge people by their capabilities, to offer them incentives, to give them opportunities. Those who cannot play must play something else or somewhere else. The madness that gripped this country some 20 years ago, when it scrapped the evaluation of civil servants, teachers and others, in the name of some badly misplaced democratic sentiments, has to be checked. If we cannot find a good player to pass to, we will either see our efforts go to waste or we will not pass, sitting on the ball until we lose it, wasting our time and that of everyone around us. If we do not have good teammates, we ourselves do not improve, and our team goes nowhere. As we have seen, every goal counts – and our first goal has to become the creation of good players. Everywhere.