WARSAW – Friday’s Euro 2012 opener will have the feel of a final, with unheralded hosts Poland all too aware they must make their mark and Greece aiming to bring cheer to their crisis-ravaged homeland.
“The first step is always the most important step, and the first step is the Greece match,» said Poland captain Kuba Blaszczykowski, fresh from a stellar season with German double winners Borussia Dortmund.
“I can’t hide the fact that this is the most important tournament of my life,» the midfielder added.
On paper, Poland are the European championship’s weakest team, ranked 62nd in the world by FIFA. They earned their berth only as hosts, like fellow organizers Ukraine.
In contrast, Greece are 15th, while Group A rivals Russia and the Czech Republic stand 13th and 27th.
Greece qualified solidly for the tournament without losing a game, and opponents know it’s risky to underestimate the surprise Euro 2004 winners.
The Greeks are mindful of the situation back home. «We will give 100 percent in order to give joy to the Greeks who will be with us here and those watching back home,» said goalkeeper Costas Chalkias, of PAOK.
Club teammate and striker Dimitris Salpingidis underlined the significance of the crunch Friday evening encounter in Warsaw’s brand-new National Stadium. «All three group matches are important, but a good start is half the battle,» he said.
Monaco defender Giorgos Tzavellas said they were in fighting mood. «We don’t have anything to fear against Poland. I believe we can repeat our effort of 2004 when we spoiled the opener for the home team,» he added, referring to Greece’s 2-1 defeat of Portugal. We respect every opponent in our group. We don’t fear anyone. Poland will have the stress and we hope to be the ones to spoil their celebration.”
Greece meet the Czechs on June 12 and wrap up their group against Russia on June 16.
The Poles, meanwhile, face Russia on June 12 in one of the most politically-charged matches of Euro 2012, before finishing against the Czechs on June 16.
Blaszczykowski insisted the squad isn’t thinking beyond Greece for now. «It’s the first match, and right now, the most important. Before the Greece match, we can’t be thinking about the Russia match, and so on,» he said.
Today’s Poland generation know that fans long for a return to the glory days which saw them finish third in the 1974 and 1982 World Cups.
Over the past decade, Poland have raised and wrecked fans’ hopes, with solid qualifying campaigns for the 2002 and 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 turning into poor finals performances.
Poland manager Franciszek Smuda has recrafted the team since taking over in October 2009 after a flunked campaign to reach the 2010 World Cup, with his side’s average age now 25.
Having missed that tournament, and not having had to qualify for Euro 2012, Poland will have gone 968 days with nothing but friendlies by Friday.
Smuda, who acknowledges that Russia are the group favorites, has sought to lower expectations.
“It’s up to us to give our all to clear the group hurdle. That in itself would be a great success for the lads,» he said.
Greece’s Portuguese manager Fernando Santos, in charge since 2010, avoided a forecast. «It will be very difficult for any opposing team to beat us. Nobody is very much better than us,» he said.
For Poland and Bordeaux midfielder Ludovic Obraniak, the match has an extra edge. He made a splash on his debut in an August 2009 home friendly against Greece, scoring both goals in the Poles’ 2-0 win. «It’s a crucial match for our team’s confidence. Winning would really set us on the right track,» he said.