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National team’s quest for Euro 2008 begins

Greece would have preferred to be immersed in tense playoff competition tonight for a place at next summer’s World Cup finals, but fourth place in its qualifying group has sidelined the national team to informal competition instead. In its first match since the recent failure to grab second place for a chance at qualifying through a home-and-away playoff tie, Greece hosts Hungary in Athens tonight. Despite the disappointment generated here by the European champion’s failure to take last year’s fairy tale in Portugal to Germany next summer, a festive mood should float around the Karaiskaki Stadium’s stands tonight following coach Otto Rehhagel’s announcement Monday that he will stay. The national team’s German coach, who signed a two-year deal and admitted receiving other offers, said his heart had bonded with Greece. Tonight’s match against the Hungarians marks Greece’s first game in the attempt to qualify for Euro 2008 in defense of the European title. Rehhagel is expected to give playing time to various squad members. Commenting on Rehhagel’s decision to remain, the Greek soccer federation’s president Vassilis Gagatsis commented that «we feel calm now.» «We were especially gratified by Mr Rehhagel’s decision to stay, as was I – after all, there’s an emotional bond,» sources quoted Gagatsis as saying. The soccer federation’s chief also said he believed the team’s inspirational 33-year-old captain Thodoris Zagorakis would continue playing for the national team after questioning whether it was time to step aside. «We had a discussion. Thodoris wants to stop, he feels that his time has come to go, but I think he’ll end up staying. I think this discussion we had – myself, Thodoris, and Mr Rehhagel – will allow him to stay,» Gagatsis said. «Thodoris questioned himself once the qualifiers were over and began leaning toward quitting. I believe he has a lot to offer, he is a leader, a real leader, not just on the pitch, but off it, too. I don’t think more discussion will be necessary for him to continue,» he added. Gagatsis said the financial details behind Rehhagel’s decision to extend his contract were of secondary importance to the German. «He [Rehhagel] gave me one condition, to support the national team, keep embracing it, and do all that is necessary to make the dreams of Greek fans a reality. The financial side was really the last thing we discussed,» Gagatsis said. «He had offers from clubs for double the money. Others would have gone while still at the top. But he proved that our bond is special… one of mutual trust, as he himself has said.» Returning to tonight’s official World Cup qualifying competition, controversy is plaguing the five second leg ties to determine the last five places of next summer’s 32-team competition The Swiss team, unbeaten in 14 straight games and holding a two-goal advantage after beating the Turks 2-0 in the first leg on Saturday, were booed by Turkish supporters on their arrival in Istanbul. The Swiss team only left Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport after a two-and-a-half-hour-hour wait under police protection on Monday. Television images on CNN-Turk also showed dozens of Turkish fans shouting insults at the players. And the Anatolia press agency reported that airport personnel had even displayed a Turkish flag with the slogan «Welcome to Hell, 5-0.» The Turkish football federation has even made an official complaint on Monday about Swiss supporters whistling the Turkish national anthem in Bern on Saturday. Slovakian midfielder Miroslav Karhan accused football’s world governing body FIFA of not wanting his country to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals at the expense of Spain. Spain thrashed Slovakia 5-1 in the first leg on Saturday and VfL Wolfsburg midfielder Miroslav Karhan claimed the result, and some dubious refereeing decisions, smacked of a conspiracy against Slovakia. Elsewhere, the two-time World Cup-winning Uruguay are taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg against Australia at Sydney’s Olympic stadium. The Czech Republic holds a 1-0 lead ahead of tonight’s game at home against Norway. The fifth encounter is a finely-balanced affair concerning Bahrain against Trinidad and Tobago, who drew 1-1 in the first leg, with the return in the Middle East. (Kathimerini, AP, AFP)