Seeking a solid showing

Qualifying for the European Championship as well as hosting the Olympic Games will make 2004 a very special year for Greece. While everyone involved in the Olympic Games will be only too keen to extend a helping hand to visitors, Greece’s footballers will not be quite so keen to hand out the kind of gifts they gave the opposition the last time they graced the international stage in 1994. Then, their most memorable moment en route to a pointless, goal-less tournament wooden spoon at the World Cup finals in the USA was to be on the receiving end of Diego Maradona’s last World Cup goal. This time, a fearless blend of young and old heads will be key to a better showing, according to Greece’s Stelios Yiannakopoulos of English premier league club Bolton Wanderers, whose match-winning goal away to Spain cleared their path to the top of qualifying Group 6. «We have experienced players who have played against the best in foreign leagues and can look them in the eye without fear,» he said. It was this mix of foreign-based talent and youngsters with European exposure that powered Greece to six consecutive wins and pushed them past rivals Spain and Ukraine. There was little sign of what was to come on a cold night in Kiev last October when Ukraine beat the Greeks 2-0. Greece had already lost by the same scoreline at home to Spain. But a brace from striker Demis Nikolaidis got them off the mark with a 2-0 home win over Armenia in March. Then in Belfast three days later, the youngsters had their turn as Werder Bremen’s 23-year-old Angelos Haristeas put two goals past Northern Ireland in another 2-0 win. After two clean sheets, the defense with Newcastle United’s Nikos Dabizas and Roma’s Traianos Dellas were beginning to shine. The pair, who rarely start for their clubs, withstood tremendous pressure on a famous night for Greek football in Zaragoza’s Romareda Stadium when Greece beat Spain 1-0 on June 7. Yiannakopoulos was the hero as he unleashed a searing first-half drive from 20 meters past Spain’s Iker Casillas to seal the victory. A late goal from Haristeas against Ukraine four days later in a 1-0 win in Athens put them on top of the group for the first time. With two ties remaining against group minnows Armenia and Northern Ireland, the Greeks had only to hold their nerve to earn the automatic qualifying berth. German coach Otto Rehhagel’s team won two more 1-0 victories, away in Yerevan and then at home in Athens, to see them over the line. In the process, Panathinaikos goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis extended his marathon shutout to 540 minutes without conceding, a national record.