SPORTS

Greek league begins, National team focuses on Euro 2004

This weekend, all eyes and interest in Greek soccer will be on the first division’s opening round for the new season, while one man, Otto Rehhagel, the coach of Greece’s national team, is focusing his efforts on keeping his squad members tuned to crucial qualifying commitments for the Euro 2004 competition in coming weeks. Greece, which leads Group 6 after recovering from a poor start in its qualifying campaign to win its last four Euro 2004 games in succession, will meet formidable Sweden in a friendly international tonight as part of preparations for the national team’s next Euro 2004 qualifier, on September 6, against Armenia in Yerevan. One game will then remain, against Northern Ireland, here, on October 11. Wins against both sides, a feasible feat considering the opponents recent records, would assure Greece its berth for next summer’s Euro 2004 finals in Portugal, regardless of all other results. Topping Group 6 with 12 points and two rounds of play remaining, Greece is one point ahead of favorite Spain. Ukraine lies third with nine points, while Armenia and Northern Ireland, Greece’s upcoming opponents, occupy the group’s bottom two places, respectively. Greece, whose most recent official game dates back to early this summer, when it defeated Ukraine 1-0 in Athens, will test its current form tonight against the Swedes on their home turf, in Norrkoping, south of Stockholm. «I believe that my players are professionals and have their minds set on the national team, exclusively,» noted Rehhagel yesterday, alluding to this weekend’s opening round of play in the Greek first division. «It’s a game from which I expect to gain plenty of useful conclusions ahead of the next game against Armenia,» he added. Rehhagel has spared no star players from tonight’s friendly game against Sweden, also its group’s leader in the Euro 2004 qualifying phase. All the Greek squad’s major components, including players with club-level commitments abroad, such as Demis Nikolaidis of Atletico Madrid, Giorgos Karagounis of Inter Milan, and Stelios Yiannacopoulos of the Bolton Wanderers, have been called up for the game in Norrkoping. Sweden will be without star midfielder Fredrik Ljungberg, a key player with English Premier League club Arsenal, who aggravated a recent shoulder injury in the London club’s opening game for the season against Everton last Saturday. «After that, the pain increased and when the medical team examined me… we agreed that it’s better if I refrain from practicing and playing to fully recover,» said Ljungberg. Interestingly, in their history, Greece and Sweden have met only in international friendly games – four times in total – the most recent being early last year, in Greece, which ended in a 2-2 draw. Overall, Greece has a slight upper hand. The teams have registered two further draws and, in their first ever encounter, in 1981, Greece defeated Sweden 2-1 at home. Meanwhile, Sweden’s coach, Tommy Soderberg, who has been in charge since 1998, will retire from the national team after the European Championships in Portugal – or before, if Sweden fails to qualify, he was quoted as telling the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.