Greece overcomes its ancient history, finally

The birthplace of democracy has found the weight of history a heavy burden. As its football team returns victorious, Greeks hope they can look forward to a new age of heroes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hanging from a lamppost in Athens' central square yesterday was a handmade banner that captured the unreal feeling in the wake of the biggest upset in football. Fluttering in the wind, it bore the words: "If this is a dream, I don't want to wake up."

Hanging from a lamppost in Athens' central square yesterday was a handmade banner that captured the unreal feeling in the wake of the biggest upset in football. Fluttering in the wind, it bore the words: "If this is a dream, I don't want to wake up."

The country that gave us logic sent a football team to Portugal that summarily dismantled the concept and awoke feelings of passion and pride that have lifted a national psyche battered by the gulf between its ancient achievements and its modern mediocrity.

Once the cradle of civilisation, Greece has been beset by angst at the scale of the task in measuring up to the glories of its ancestors since winning independence from Turkey in 1830. This angst has not been helped by an almost preternatural ability to attract the wrong kind of press whatever it does. It has been endlessly buffeted by criticism of Olympic preparations that owed more to those other Greek inventions, chaos and tragedy.

But now this country of only 11 million inhabitants finally has something to be unequivocally happy about. Six football matches cannot compete with the legacy of a culture that spawned democracy, maths and physics, but taking the trophy at Euro 2004 felt remarkably close to it for anyone with even the tiniest bit of Greek in them.

"I don't feel any different than I did yesterday but hopefully the rest of Greece will," said Antonis Panoutsos, Greece's answer to Des Lynam and the anchorman for television coverage of the tournament. "Last night hopefully demolished the disease of fatalism that paralyses so much of Greek life.

"Greeks always complain that everything is fixed, everything is orchestrated against them, which is convenient because it gives an excuse to do nothing. Why bother, because others will conspire against you. It's a way of saying we didn't really lose, we were robbed."

This collective paranoia was never better illustrated than at this year's Eurovision song contest. The annual outpouring of kitsch pop assumed national importance in Greece this year when Sakis Rouvas, the local pop favourite entered. When a sprightly performance delivered third place, all Greece called foul, chat shows spent hours on Eastern European conspiracy theories to explain Rouvas' loss to Ukraine's diva Ruslana.

"This was the best example of this dogged belief that everything and everyone is against us," Mr Panoutsos said. "No more. When people see Thodoris Zagorakis, a 33-year-old journeyman footballer voted player of the tournament after collecting the trophy then it's time to drop the fatalism. This is a guy who comes from a low-expectations culture and you saw it gradually dawned on him that he could play, really play."

In one memorable quarter-final moment, the Greek captain stopped the ball dead on his foot, then chipped it over his marker before rampaging down the right wing to deliver a pinpoint cross on to the striker's head that led to the winning goal.

"He is a working-class hero and should be an example to all Greeks of what can be achieved," Mr Panoutsos added. "This tournament made heroes of players that surpassed the small expectations people had of them."

Loukas Tsoukalis, a professor of contemporary Greek studies who describes himself as a cynic, who was nonetheless delighted with the result on Sunday, said the euphoria (another Greek word) was inescapable. "Football seems to have become the best form of expressing national identity and certainly the best way of mobilising people in pursuit of a national goal. Greece is a country that evokes strong emotions, it's a place that you either love very much or hate absolutely."

On Sunday night, the feeling was clearly one of love. Pericles' ancient masterpiece, the Acropolis, was bathed in the light of fireworks as modern Greeks celebrated having achieved something for themselves.

And the strength of that feeling reached far beyond the shores of Greece, thanks to the scale of another Greek phenomenon: its diaspora. This global population, equivalent to that of the country itself, provides the other side of the Greek identity to the fatalism of those sitting in the sun in the south-eastern corner of Europe.

"This national team has cheered up everyone and awakened the Greekness in people all over the world," Professor Tsoukalis said. "The unique thing about Greece is the strength of this national identity, and that is nowhere more clearly seen than in the diaspora which is comparable in scale only with the Jewish diaspora."

Professor Tsoukalis, the former head of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics, said a recent trip to the tiny island of Halki illustrated the strength of feeling the emigrants retain for the mother country.

"Halki has a winter population of only 150, and there is a saint's day festival each year at a monastery on top of a hill there. More than 3,000 people come back from all over the world for the saint every year. In Florida, the local Greek community has a monument to the saint, their sense of connection to the place is so strong. Part of it is to do with religion but it also stems from the fact that Greece is such a beautiful place."

The shockwave from Portugal has been felt from the established Greek communities in Australia and the United States to the more obscure Hellenic outposts in Tanzania and Tashkent. Tashkent?

These Greeks, political refugees of the civil war half a century ago, these Greeks fled to the Communist states beyond the Iron Curtain, establishing communities in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union.

The largest of these communities was in Tashkent, in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Twelve thousand political refugees established the Greek Association of Tashkent in 1950. In 1974, there were 35,000 Greeks there. Today, 12,000 remain. Last night they were on the streets dancing to the syrtaki in scenes repeated all over the world.

Professor Tsoukalis said these extraordinarily diverse pockets of people are a legacy of Greece's turbulent 20th century. This nation was shaped by war and dictatorship. Autocratic rule blighted the country from 1967 until 1974. It sits on the edge of the Balkans, plagued twice by ethnic conflict in the past 100 years. Then there were the world wars. Between 1914 and 1918, the country's competing interests argued for the country to join differing sides. The result was suffering among ordinary Greeks.

More than 20 years later, German occupation led to the worst famine Europe saw in the 20th century. Ten of thousands of Greeks starved to death. "Greece is a country with a bloody history which is why so many people left," Professor Tsoukalis said. The recent cinema hit A Touch of Spice reminded the world that Greeks also yearn for their lost homelands in Asia Minor. The population exchanges of the 1920s that followed the disastrous attempt to invade Turkey were the beginning of a century of migration for Greeks. Many settled in Melbourne, the second-biggest Greek city in the world after Athens. Its 500,000 Greeks staged an overnight party the city will never forget. Police had to seal off four blocks in the city centre as the match kicked off just before 5am local time.

"After they won, everything went wild, the police had to give up and just let them get on with throwing fireworks and blocking traffic,'' said a Greek-Australian, Vicky Kyriakopoulos. "It's infectious and the city had adopted the team as their own." In Toronto, home town of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, traffic was at a standstill yesterday afternoon. Thousands of Canadians forgot about the maple leaf and donned blue and white to remind themselves, and anyone else who was looking, that Greek blood flows through their veins.

"There was a huge celebration in Greektown and it felt like the whole of the Greek community was in the same place at the same time," said the Greek-Canadian Pigi Tsiantou.

On the streets of Greece and on the streets of "Greektowns" the world over, the talk was of the "immortal Hellenic soul" that had delivered the passion and desire to turn the footballing world on its head.

Greeks have been arguing since Plato opened the doors to his academy, and his modern counterparts are capable of starting a war of words with themselves in a phone booth, but everyone agrees on one ironic truth: Greece needed a German to unlock their potential.

The efficiency that 68-year-old Otto Rehhagel, the Bavarian coach, coaxed from his band of previously strolling players spoke more of central European values than the Greek cult of the individual. "The celebrations were uniquely Greek but the organisation and performances were recognisably German," Professor Tsoukalas added.

Rehhagel may not have a Greek soul but he will have citizenship as the reward for turning Greeks into world-beaters. But his need is more basic. He wanted the freedom of the Athens bus lanes to avoid that other Greek tragedy: gridlock.