SPORTS

Outsiders looking to impress

An outsider at the upcoming Euro 2004 soccer finals in Portugal, Greece will be hoping to repeat the success it enjoyed in the qualifiers. On Sunday, coach Otto Rehhagel gave a vote of confidence to the team’s recent efforts by naming an unchanged 23-man squad for the Euro tournament starting next month. Rehhagel said that he would be relying on the same players who earned them top place in Group 6 of their Euro 2004 qualifying round. The German included six players from Greek champions Panathinaikos, five from fourth-placed AEK and four from second-placed Olympiakos. Rehhagel also called on the services of eight overseas players. Greece will train in Switzerland before their opening match against hosts Portugal on June 12. The team’s main strength since Rehhagel’s takeover two years ago has been its solid defense. Victories in Portugal, will, however, also require inspired performances from the players up front. Two likely candidates are attacking midfielder Stelios Yiannakopoulos and striker Dimitris Papadopoulos. Yiannakopoulos relishes challenges, such as scoring from 20 meters in Greece’s shock Euro qualification win away against Spain. He will certainly be keen to take on Europe’s big boys in Portugal. After winning the Greek championship for seven consecutive seasons with Olympiakos, and finishing last season as second top scorer, Yiannakopoulos decided to try his luck in England instead of resting on his laurels. He was quickly snapped up by Premier League club Bolton Wanderers after his contract with the Greek champions had expired. Yiannakopoulos, known in Bolton by his first name – which saves fans money as they pay for fewer letters if they want it emblazoned on the back of their replica shirts – now wants to make his mark in the European Championship. «It will be a tough championship but we are going to give it our best shot. We are there to play serious football,» he said after his squad won automatic qualification with six consecutive victories in the qualifying group stage. Unlike Greece’s past internationals who played in the 1980 European Championship and the 1994 World Cup, Yiannakopoulos will not be satisfied with just putting in an appearance. «We have experienced players who have played against the best in foreign leagues and can look them in the eye without fear,» he said. The Greek player’s coach at Bolton, Sam Allardyce, noted: «His main attribute remains his ability to make late runs into the penalty area and his flair for shooting accurately from long range. He is an attacking midfielder who knows how to score goals.» At 30, Yiannakopoulos knows Portugal could well be his last chance to shine on the international stage, and judging from his performance to date, he is ready to seize it. For his younger teammate Papadopoulos, now 22, the past year has been sensational. This time last year, the striker was looking for a team. Twelve months on and he is Greece’s hottest player and one to watch in Portugal. The Panathinaikos striker, who joined the Athens club last season, has already won the domestic championship and cup and is the league’s second best scorer, despite a two-month injury break. That is not all. He still has a long, hot summer ahead with his Euro 2004 duty followed by the Athens Olympics in August. The club’s top scorer this season with 17 goals left English first-division club Burnley in 2003 after failing to make any impact and gain a starting spot. He was quietly snapped up by Panathinaikos for less than 350,000 euros, half the amount Burnley paid to buy him from Greek club Akratitos. Papadopoulos proved to be the league’s most consistent striker, forcing Greece coach Rehhagel to recall him to the national side. He has also become the fans’ darling. With some of Greece’s top scorers, including Atletico Madrid’s Demis Nikolaidis and Fiorentina’s Zizis Vryzas, in their early 30s and past their prime, Papadopoulos is being hailed as their successor. (Reuters, AFP)