‘Get ready for upsets,’ underdogs warn

LISBON (AP) – Latvians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Swiss accept that they are the outsiders at Euro 2004. However, they still cherish their chances of taking the scalps of big soccer powers and don’t have to look far back in history to find inspiration. At the 2002 World Cup opener in South Korea, Senegal upset defending European and World Champion France 1-0 and the French bowed out in the first round – winless and scoreless. The Koreans knocked out powerhouses Italy and Spain. «There are no small teams at final tournaments,» said France coach Jacques Santini. «All the teams that reached Euro 2004 are capable of winning matches and pulling surprises.» Bulgaria’s coach agrees. «We are certainly not among the tournament favorites,» Plamen Markov said. «For us, our very presence at the Euros is a success, and we will make every effort to perform well.» The Bulgarians should know, as their underdog team stunned Germany 2-1 at the 1994 World Cup in the United States and reached the semifinals. Bulgaria – whose odds are 80-1 to win the tournament, according to British bookmakers – opens its Euro 2004 campaign against Sweden on June 14. The other two teams in Group C are Italy and Denmark. The Swiss, with 125-1 odds to win here, also have some recent scalps to remember. Switzerland trashed favored Romania 4-1 at the 1994 World Cup to place in the second round, and tied England 1-1 in their European Championship opener at Wembley in 1996. Switzerland opens its Euro 2004 Group B campaign against Croatia on June 13 before playing England June 17 and France June 21. Latvia, playing in the finals of any major soccer tournament for the first time, knocked off several accomplished teams in the qualifying round, including Poland and World Cup semifinalist Turkey, to reach Euro 2004. Latvia is placed in the toughest group with the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands, which have all won the title. Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs cautioned his players against trying to count how many points they would need to reach the tournament’s second round. «I don’t do this sort of math,» said Starkovs, whose team is ranked lowest at the 16-nation tournament, with 250-1 odds against it. «There are other pragmatic teams like Italy who have gone far with just a single goal,» Starkovs said. «But I don’t want to jinx a good result. It is important that everyone just plays their best.» Greece, with 80-1 odds against it, failed to win a game in its two major soccer finals, being outscored 10-0 in the World Cup finals in the United States in ’94. It plays in Group A with Portugal, Spain and Russia. «Everybody knows who the favorites are in our group,» said Greece’s coach Otto Rehhagel. «We will not be cramped by such expectations. The pressure is on them. All the players have to do is place their hands on their heart and give the best for their country.» Portugal, after much heartache and near misses at top level events, are ready to answer their nation’s expectations and win Euro 2004 on home soil, defender Rui Jorge said yesterday. «I think we can beat any team in the world,» said the Sporting Lisbon star, winner of seven domestic league titles and mainstay of the national side since Euro 2000. «We’re a strong team and can turn it on at a very high level. We will be going out to win the event, there’s no doubt about that… We must watch out for the Greeks, as they have a lot of character,» Rui Jorge added. Portugal have not always had things their own way against a Greek side that shocked Spain away from home to reach the finals under inspirational German coach Rehhagel. In 10 meetings, Portugal have won four and lost two, while most recently the pair parted 1-1 in a friendly last November. The Greeks won their first meeting, a World Cup qualifier in December 1968, just two years after a Eusebio-inspired Portugal had reached the semifinals in England. (AP, AFP)