Greece qualifies for Euro 2004 soccer finals

As celebrations for Greece’s qualification to the finals of the Euro 2004 receded yesterday, soccer officials and players began making plans for the team’s appearance in Portugal. Hundreds of jubilant Greeks took to the streets after Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland to celebrate Greece’s first qualification to a European Championships in over two decades. The fans also hailed German coach Otto Rehhagel as a national hero after he steered the team to their first European championship finals since 1980. «He is also a Greek,» read a front-page headline in sports newspaper Sportime, accompanied by a picture of a victorious Rehhagel, who in the past in Germany was known as «King Otto.» «The most important thing we’ve achieved here in the last two years is the team spirit and it runs through the team on the pitch and everyone on the bench, as you saw tonight,» said the former Bundesliga-winning coach. The qualification came after a six-game winning streak that led Greece to the top of Group 6 with 18 points, one ahead of favored Spain. The Spaniards now have to seek qualification through playoff games after the three points earned by Greece Saturday night were enough to hold off the challenge of Spain who thrashed Armenia 4-0 but, as group runners-up, go into today’s draw in Frankfurt for the November playoffs. At the end of the match, the usually reserved Rehhagel set off on a fist-waving lap of honor in front of thousands of ecstatic fans who cheered wildly and chanted «ole» to all the players as they waved Greek flags, held up flares and threw firecrackers. Striker Demis Nikolaidis, who plays for Atletico Madrid, told a private TV station that «we’ll celebrate for a couple of days and then we’ll have to start making plans for the finals. Things will be completely different there.» Attacking midfielder Stelios Yiannacopoulos, who moved to Premier League Bolton Wanderers this season, described the qualification as an important event for Greece, «particularly because it will coincide with the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.» Striker Angelos Charisteas, who plays for Rehhagel’s former team Werder Bremen, said, «We didn’t play great as we were very tense from the start, but in the end we managed to squeeze through.» Qualification also had an added bonus for the players after the Greek Soccer Federation reportedly pledged to give the team a bonus of 2.6 million euros ($3.06 million), to be split equally among them, if they sent Greece to the finals in Portugal. Spain’s coach Inaki Saez and his players are upbeat about their chances of qualifying for Euro 2004 via the playoffs following their 4-0 win away to Armenia on Saturday. But the evening was tinged with disappointment as news filtered through that Greece had managed to break the deadlock in Athens and secure first place in the group. Spain began the qualification campaign well, but a 1-0 defeat at home to Greece and a goal-less draw away to Northern Ireland meant they lost control of their destiny. Midfielder David Albelda admitted that Spain, who have not failed to qualify for a major tournament since the European championships in 1992, had only themselves to blame. «We made the mistakes against Greece and Northern Ireland,» he said. «We may be the strongest team in the group, but the strongest teams don’t always win.» Spain now await today’s draw to see who they will face in the playoff matches. Turkey, the Netherlands, Russia, Scotland and Croatia are among the sides they could meet over two legs in mid-November. (AP, Reuters)