Rehhagel calls up promising young striker

Just weeks after transferring to English Premiership club Manchester City from Dutch club Heerenveen, promising young Greek striker Giorgos Samaras was called up for the national team yesterday, ahead of a friendly tournament in Cyprus later this month. Besides Greece and the host nation, the upcoming tournament, scheduled between February 28 and March 1, will also include either Finland or Kazakhstan. «I’d been observing Samaras for quite a while, and now was the appropriate time to select him,» Greece’s coach Otto Rehhagel said yesterday during a meeting with sports journalists covering the national team. The towering and highly rated 20-year-old striker, who moved to Manchester City in an 8.8-million-euro deal earlier this month, scored his first goal for his new English club last weekend, helping it defeat Charlton 3-2 and move up to ninth in the Premiership. Prior to yesterday’s selection for the national team, Samaras was a key member of Greece’s under-21 squad. Considering Rehhagel’s strong preference for players playing their club-level soccer abroad, the selection of Samaras was not a major surprise. Ten of the squad’s members for the Cyprus tournament are signed to foreign clubs, once again indicating Rehhagel disapproval of the domestic competition’s standards. Reflecting his concern, Rehhagel told reporters that he hoped there would be a day when «supporters of the archrival clubs Panathinaikos and Olympiakos could sit side by side in the stands without the need of security measures, as was the case in Portugal [Euro 2004], where nobody asked anybody about which team he or she supported.» Hinting at the rivalries ignited by the local sports press, Rehhagel called for objective journalistic coverage, while also shunning sports newspapers affiliated with specific clubs. Rehhagel rejected the overall belief here that recent heavy sanctions imposed on the Turkish national side by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, for violence in a World Cup qualifier against Switzerland last November would benefit Greece in its Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. It begins later this year. Greece has been drawn into the same group with Turkey, ordered by FIFA to play their next six official home games behind closed doors at a neutral venue and pay all organizational costs. Also, Turkey was handed a 129,000-euro fine and three players were banned. Concerned about the summer break and its impact on the fitness of his squad members ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifiers beginning next September, Rehhagel, during yesterday’s meeting, said next season’s Greek league competition should start no later than August 20. «My players will be able to get at least a couple of official games,» Rehhagel said. «I want to avoid what happened in Albania,» he added, referring to Greece’s shock 2-1 loss in the opening game of its failed World Cup 2006 qualifying campaign. The national team’s players, most playing their first official game for the new season following Greece’s astonishing Euro 2004 triumph several weeks earlier, appeared stunned by the frenzied home team and crowd. Rehhagel is thought to be seeking top-class friendly competition for his team ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifiers. He mentioned World Cup champions Brazil yesterday, while adding he wanted Greece to host the encounter at a packed Athens Olympic Stadium this coming August. Previous reports have mentioned Italy as a possible Euro 2008 warmup opponent.

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