Outsiders gain respect

PORTO – Greece has deservedly earned the title of surprise team at Euro 2004 after sparkling performances against two of the tournament favorites. Their shock victory over hosts Portugal in the opening game and a battling draw with a talented Spanish side have put Greece top of Group A, only a point away from their first quarterfinals with one game to play. «These matches have shown that we are not a firework, that we did not come here as tourists,» central defender Michalis Kapsis said. Playing inspiring soccer at times, Greeks booked their place at the tournament by winning six straight qualifiers, including away games in Spain, Northern Ireland and Armenia. That was already a major success for the Greeks and few were ready to bet on them going past the group stage, which also includes Russia. «Of course, we are the outsiders,» said German coach Otto Rehhagel, who took over the team three years ago. «Look at the football histories of the three countries in our group. We can’t match that.» But his players have eclipsed the soccer traditions of their rivals and are firmly on course for the last eight. With a mixture of young and old, Rehhagel has sculpted a team capable of beating the best in Europe. They have only lost twice in the last 20 internationals and have an eight-game unbeaten run in competitive games. But the experienced coach, with an illustrious 30-year Bundesliga career behind him, is still calling for caution. «Nothing has been won. Everyone says we are through to the next round but that is not true,» he said yesterday. Few would bet against them now, though. Fighting spirit It was not too long ago when Greece, following dismal appearances at the 1980 European Championships and 1994 World Cup, where they conceded 10 goals in three matches, was renowned for quickly throwing in the towel. «Greece came to this tournament with a tag reading: ‘This is a strong defensive team which can only play well if it scores, but crumbles when it concedes goals,’» Kapsis said. «Against Spain, we had team spirit, we fought for 90 minutes and we showed we can turn the game around after being 1-0 down. This is the most positive thing to come out of the Spain match.» Greece battled on against the Spaniards, even after falling 1-0 behind in the first half and managed to grab an equalizer midway through the second. «The Spaniards had a better team, but we had soul,» striker Demis Nikolaidis said. «Our secret is that we fight for 90 minutes.»

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