SPORTS

German coach inspires national side

All Greeks aboard the «Otto Express» – next stop, barring a Northern Ireland derailment, Euro 2004, the European soccer championship, in Portugal. The Greek national soccer team, for years a synonym for missed opportunities, are back on track under German coach Otto Rehhagel and finally giving their fans something to smile about. Dubbed the «Otto Express» by Greek media after away wins against Spain, Northern Ireland and Armenia, they are now just a win away from reaching next year’s tournament. A weekend victory over Armenia put Greece firmly in the driving seat in Group 6 and a win against Northern Ireland on October 11 in Athens will ensure they go through to the European Championships for the first time since 1980. Greece tops Group 6 with 15 points from seven games, compared to 11 for favored Spain after six games. Ukraine is in third place with 10 points, followed by Armenia with four and Northern Ireland with three. Spain hosts Ukraine tomorrow and travels to Yerevan for the last game on October 11. Greece completes its qualifying rounds on October 11, against Northern Ireland in Athens. «We are at the last step, like an 800-meter runner who leads the race 20 meters from the finish,» Rehhagel told reporters after the Armenia game. «We have to beat Northern Ireland to benefit from what we have built up to now.» After losing the first two matches of their qualifying campaign against Spain and Ukraine, Greece went on a record five-game winning streak, topping the group and making the Spaniards face the prospect of a playoff. Greece has kept a clean sheet in its last five games, with goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis going 450 minutes without conceding a goal. It is quite a change from all the missed trains to other major tournaments. Even after qualifying for their first World Cup in 1994, defeats by Argentina, Nigeria and Bulgaria and huge locker-room rows turned Greeks against their team. «They played the 4-4-2 system,» fans joked for years about the number of goals conceded by the national side – the second worst World Cup performance after Zaire’s in 1974. A brief yet respectable appearance at the 1980 European Championships is too distant a memory for most fans. But Rehhagel, a veteran coach whose credits include German championships, a UEFA Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup, seems to have instilled a sense of pride in his players since taking over last year. «You know these guys used to snub the national squad. Now, the German has really given them something to hope for and that makes them real professionals and hungry for success,» a Greek soccer association official said. For years the players were called the «national holidaymakers» for their laziness and lack of passion but no more. Although many of the team’s best players are with top-flight European clubs, including Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid and Roma, they now never miss national training sessions. Belief in him is so strong that there was barely a murmur when Rehhagel refused to use a single player from champions Olympiakos for a game. Athens daily Ta Nea reported yesterday that Rehhagel wants the soccer federation to extend the season by two weeks so that the country’s players don’t get too much rest ahead of Euro 2004. Although Greece hasn’t yet secured a berth, Rehhagel does not want to take any chances and have his players sitting around for more than a month. The Greek first division league ends on May 2 and Rehhagel reportedly asked the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) to extend the season until May 16. The European Championships, to be played in Portugal, kick off June 12 and end July 4. (Reuters/AP)