SPORTS

Greece can now qualify directly in 2004 European soccer finals

After a poor start in its bid to qualify for the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal, with losses against Spain at home and Ukraine away in its first two games, Greece, propelled by key victories over these two sides in recent days, now heads Group 6, and, in a remarkable turnaround, is the master of its own destiny for a berth in the finals. It has now won an unprecedented four straight games in international competition. Wednesday night’s 1-0 win against Ukraine in Athens, combined with Spain’s scoreless draw in Northern Ireland, has given Greece the qualifying group’s outright lead with 12 points, one ahead of favorite Spain with just two games remaining. Victories in both, against fourth-placed Armenia in Yerevan on September 9 and last-placed Northern Ireland in Athens just over a month later, will earn Greece the top spot and its second-ever berth in the European Championships, regardless of Spain’s efforts. Ukraine is third with nine points. Greece last qualified in 1980. Just days ago, before its surprise 1-0 away win against Spain last Saturday night, Greece was placed third in Group 6, hoping, at best, to capture second place for a crack at qualifying through the home-and-away playoffs reserved for the runners-up of all 10 groups. Greece’s coach, Otto Rehhagel, was understandably delighted following Wednesday night’s victory. «This is a team that has been accused of choking on big occasions and we talked about that in the buildup to the game. Tonight [Wednesday] these players showed that they have a big-name mentality,» said Rehhagel. «There are more games ahead and our performance must be sustained,» he added. Following Wednesday’s 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland, a side that has now failed to score in just under 1,000 minutes of play, Spain’s coach Inaki Saez hinted at changes to his squad. «I have realized I need people with more purpose. I will start searching,» he said. Spanish star striker Raul Gonzalez noted: «Now we don’t depend on ourselves but on Greece.» Stelios Yiannakopoulos, the scorer of Greece’s golden goal against Spain, spoke of an ideal summer break for the national squad ahead of its final two qualifiers in September and October. «Our win, combined with Spain’s result, was the best thing that could have come our way. We couldn’t have hoped for a better vacation,» remarked Yiannakopoulos, who, at club level, recently signed with English Premier League club Bolton Wanderers after winning seven consecutive Greek titles with Olympiakos. It was not all good news for Greece’s national team following Wednesday’s win over Ukraine: Defender Nikos Dabizas was hospitalized early yesterday morning after breaking his arm in a car crash following late-night celebrations. Doctors expect him to be ready for Greece’s next Euro qualifier.