SPORTS

Greek quest for Euro 2004 soccer berth to be tested in Belfast clash this weekGreece, placed fourth in Group 6, needs to defeat Northern Ireland away to keep its hopes alive

The national soccer team’s inconsistency, a perennial condition, has generally made reaching objectives a demanding task, as is the case right now. In pursuing its latest goal, a berth at the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal, Greece finds itself battling in Group 6, placed fourth with three points from three games. With the top spot already seeming to have slipped out of reach, the only realistic hope would be to strive for second place and a possible finals berth through a play-off encounter with the runner-up of another group. Spain leads Group 6 with seven points from three games, and is followed by Ukraine with six points from four games, and Armenia with four points from three games. Northern Ireland, Greece’s next opponent this Wednesday night in Belfast, is at the bottom with a point from three games. Considering its frustrating flight-and-plight course, the national team will need to strike a good showing on Wednesday for the victory needed to keep its qualifying hopes alive. A win would also offer relief for coach Otto Rehhagel. Any other result, according to insiders, would most likely lead to the end of the German’s tenure. In a friendly international against Austria last Wednesday, Greece, which limited itself to about 10 minutes of decent soccer, squandered a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2. This seeming lack of commitment is a genuine concern for Rehhagel. It has become increasingly evident that players appear less willing to perform on a national level, preferring instead to save their mileage for club competition where the monetary motives are believed to be greater. A sharp-minded, experienced coach, Rehhagel knows that his players will need to perform in top form for a win in Belfast. He also knows that his position will be in jeopardy should the squad return here with anything less. Rumors of a successor are already rife, with Dusan Basevic, the coach of AEK, being touted as the likeliest replacement – if needed. The country’s most successful coach at club level for the past 15 years, Bajevic has been in the minds of Greek soccer federation officials for some time. But this is not an appropriate moment for such speculation. Returning to this Wednesday, Greek fans will be hoping that the national team’s players can leave behind their national league considerations as the first division enters the suspenseful final phase. Only a spirited and unbridled performance will do if the national team’s present quest is to remain alive.