SPORTS

The golden story that 200 Greece fans will tell their grandchildren

«This is a story I will proudly tell my grandchildren, that I was there, too, when Greece scored its first ever victory in the World Cup.» The words of 45-year-old Greece fan Takis from Athens, one of the 200 lucky punters whose Pame Stoichima betting slips took them to South Africa to attend the match against Nigeria last Thursday, reflect the mood of most people who experienced this unprecedented moment in Greek soccer. Some 200 Greeks from across the country got the chance to attend each of the three group games of manager Otto Rehhagel’s side at the 19th World Cup, thanks to one of the golden betting slips they managed to come by. They secured their owners a few days in Johannesburg and a ticket to one of Greece’s World Cup games. Yet the 200 or so who took their seats at Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium last Thursday were the luckiest among the lucky, as they not only got have their traveling expenses paid for by the OPAP gaming company but they also attended a historic first for the country, a 2-1 victory over Nigeria. It does sound like a fairy tale, such as those grandparents indeed tell their grandchildren, but those golden betting slips took the lucky Greeks to the Gold Province, or Gauteng, where some 125 years ago European gold diggers founded Johannesburg. And those fortunate Greeks got to be there for Greece’s golden victory, with its maiden goals and points in a World Cup that takes the country off the black list of soccer nations that have taken part in the tournament without getting any goals or points. Defeat to South Korea on June 12 had dampened much of the optimism among Greece fans as they were heading to South Africa two days before the Nigeria match. All the talk was about Rehhagel, his errors and when he would go, with ex-PAOK coach Fernando Santos and Turkey’s Guus Hiddink the fans’ favorites to replace him. Yet as the coach carried them toward Bloemfontein, the enthusiasm and the loud chants were impossible to miss. Could they be sensing victory? Possibly. After all, Aristotelis from Zakynthos had been certain from the day before: «We’ll win 2-1,» he said laconically. Some 430 kilometers southwest of Johannesburg the Greeks staged a great party, led by those coming from Greece, who were the most vocal in their chanting and singing, although the Greeks from South Africa and those from Australia followed pretty close behind. As the two goals were scored, they even outshouted the infamous vuvuzelas, too. Deprived of their voices but sporting huge smiles, the 200 fans returned to Greece the following night, with their souvenir vuvuzelas peeking out of their hand luggage like decorations from a winning battle, although a few decided to stay on, paying their own way. The next batch of 200 lucky punters are already in South Africa ahead of tomorrow’s match against Argentina at Polokwane. Let’s hope they, too, get to find some gold there.