Greek football is on the resurgence and having recently qualified for the World Cup in the play-off against Romania with a 4-2 aggregate score, the passion of the World Cup is rippling back again in Athens. Currently in economic meltdown, the years of 2004 and European Cup glory are very far behind the Greeks but they still echo firmly in the minds of those who remember that final against Portugal.
I’m an Englishman, first and foremost but even I still shed a tear when I re-watch highlights of that final I shed a tear because I know that for the Greeks, football is everything. When Greece won it, I bawled like a baby.
It was Churchill that said after World War Two, “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks”, and this is true during any of their David and Goliath fights that the Greeks have found themselves up against in the history books, be it football, basketball or any other endeavour.
|Mitroglou fires home against Romania.|
A small nation, of roughly eleven million people, Greece has never really punched above its weight in international fixtures when it has come to facing the giants of Europe. Terrific derbies versus their old enemy Turkey have been the only worthwhile fixtures in the Greek calendar. But that one sequence of events in 2004, with enough determination and belief ‘the Pirate Ship’ (as they were affectionately known – a term used by Greek sports broadcasters) Otto Rehhagel under the captainship of Theodoros Zagorakis, found themselves in an European Cup final against Portugal. We English-Greeks had to listen to the likes of Lawrenson et al and those dour, useless, for-some-reason-still-employed, English broadcasters moan and belittle the Greek’s presence in the cup throughout the Group Stage, Quarters and Semi finals. We had to listen to their absolute bile through 90 minutes and then through every analysis.
I was deeply offended at the time and felt that their words edged on xenophobia. Even today I hear people criticise the formation and tactics of the Greek team that summer, but really, how did everyone expect Greece to play against the likes of Russian, Portugal (twice), Spain and France? These are the same commentators that give Stoke or Sunderland credit when they dig deep and win one nil at White Hart Lane? Yet these are the same heads that called Greece boring and ‘negative’. Greece are never going to be world beaters but that one year they dug deep and congratulations for doing so. England have the fancy facilities, the Oxygen chambers and their players have millions of pounds in the bank but if the England team is lacking in one thing the Greeks will always have, it’s passion. This is when I first began to see why my Scottish friends so frequently get upset with the English media.
|Karagounis expresses his disdain at not being awarded a penalty.|
Look at Giorgios Karagounis a man who is the most famous Greek footballer, arguably, of all time. The David Beckham of Greece as he is known, but at 36, his influence as a player will be diminishing and the World Cup in Brazil will definitely be his last competition as a Greek player and whether he chooses a career in management, or coaching, will be his choice. I find him an ideal role model for Greek football worldwide, his mentality in interviews and on the pitch is what any fan wants from a footballer.
The celebrations for the goals he scores, his eyes, the sheer dedication that radiates from him. His sheers anger at getting booked for diving against Russia in the group stage in the European Finals in 2004 really encapsulated his personality. It was a Gascoigne moment for him. But Giorgios never cried, he roared and screamed and the pain on his face was visible. This was a man who was unfairly denied his chance in a Quarter Final, a pinnacle that he would never expect to achieve in his life time and his passion was exact and not just for the cameras. I am glad he has found at least a small input in a struggling Fulham squad this season but it will be a shame to see him eventually go. His passion still the same as it ever was. He stormed on the pitch to congratulate Mitroglou on that first goal in the second leg versus Romania just last week, despite being a sub and wearing a bib. This is something you would never expect and England player to do. They’d just sit there, smile and refresh their Twitter feed saying something ‘congratulations lads that was a good gole’ (sic.).
|Nikos Dabizas squares up to Tottenham's Teddy Sheringham.|
Karagounis is an interesting topic. He has had a few starts for Fulham this season, scoring the odd goal in his tenure – but, unfortunately, Greek participation in the major football leagues is thin on the ground. In the Premier League there is Apostolos Vellios for Everton, who is not exactly what someone would call a prolific striker; or Charolampos Mavrias, currently just joined at Sunderland, still looking to make an impression. There is of course Dimitrios Konstantopoulos who is reserve goalkeeper for Middlesbrough, but there is very little point him even being mentioned, as his CV shows very little other than being goalkeeper when AEK Athens were relegated for the first time in their long history. One would look towards the history of England and see Newcastle’s Nikos Dabizas (a moniker I actually used to write under) but still find their countrymen underrepresented in a league that covers such a variety of nations. Theo Zagorakis played briefly yet well for Leicester City while Angelos Basinas felt himself frozen out at Portsmouth and Stellios Giannakopoulos did a fair old stint at Bolton. I raise the question, was the idea of a ‘Greek’ too much of a risk for a league that was increasingly turning to Spain, Italy, South America for their talent pool? Maybe so.
Greece have a wealth of young talent, including Sokratis Papastathopoulos who plays for Borussia Dortmund, as well as Kryiakos Papadopoulos who plays for FC Shalke. Striker Kostas Mitroglou, is top scorer for Olympiakos this season and top scorer in the Greece Super League. With 14 goals already and brimming with confidence he has been garnering interest from England including scouting attempts from Liverpool, who have also shown an interest in Papadopoulos at Shalke too. Mitroglou’s effort at international level has been nothing short of incredible as without his goal scoring, Greece would be nowhere in the competition. All these players are at 25 years of age and this could be a year where Greece could expect to escape the group stage. As the days go by I am reading more about interest from Mitroglou and his ability as a complete footballer is astonishing. His strength, his touch and his ability to shield the ball echoes a Greek Didier Drogba; although he will obviously expect never to rise to the same heights. If, indeed Brendan Rogers does take the risk on Kostas Mitroglou; and a risk it most certainly will be, I hope it pays off.