James Lawton: Why tales of the unexpected are the lifeblood of our sport

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The Independent Online

Another day on and the wonders and mysteries of the Greek football team are still as intense as when they threw themselves down on the field of the Estadio da Luz, claiming forever a piece of the game's most famed and romantic real estate. It still seems strange on the lips, Greece, European champions, but not in the most important place in all of sport - the heart.

Another day on and the wonders and mysteries of the Greek football team are still as intense as when they threw themselves down on the field of the Estadio da Luz, claiming forever a piece of the game's most famed and romantic real estate. It still seems strange on the lips, Greece, European champions, but not in the most important place in all of sport ­ the heart.

If you are lucky enough, and live long enough, you get to see and store away the events that will always move the spirit, that can be called upon until the day you die.

You see Muhammad Ali upsetting the great ogres Sonny Liston and George Foreman, and old Stan Matthews winning a Cup final at the age of 38, and a kid called Tiger Woods exploding across the firmament of golf with a game that had never quite been seen before.

It is the supreme achievement of sport, this ability to make the world suddenly stop dead and see new horizons, new possibilities. It is the lifeblood of the games we play, and just as the Greeks suspended what we took for reality so gloriously, Maria Sharapova did it on Wimbledon's Centre Court just 24 hours or so earlier. Serena Williams had the talent and the genes to be the champion of the ages, or so we thought until her young conqueror, gleaming like ice, shook off the snows of Siberia.

Sport will die when its power to invade the mind with the utterly unexpected runs dry, and this is the real cause for celebration.

Forget the tactics of football, the arcane subtleties of top spin, the essence of sport is the passion that has been stirred again in the heat of Portugal and the chill of SW19. Sharapova has won Wimbledon at 17, as did Boris Becker.

Yesterday weary Greek stragglers still marched in triumph around the streets of Lisbon ­ and they were applauded by the vanquished. Their team, after all, had scored the most astonishing achievement in the history of international football: Greece, a team of nobodies coached by a 65-year-old eccentric driven, amid derision, from his native Germany, had taken on and thrashed, both in motivation and controlled technique, the élite of football's most monied and powerful continent.

Some are saying this was a once-in-a-lifetime freak show, a clever, well-drilled exploitation of fatigue and ennui among the vastly overpaid and underachieving aristocrats of football.

They are right only in that what the Greeks have done is indeed unprecedented, but there was nothing charmed or false about the sustained performance of toppling the gifted Portuguese twice, the reigning champions France and the much-heralded Czech Republic.

The Greeks didn't give us some arid exercise in needling, killing class warfare. No, they gave us everything they had, all their dreams and all their sinew and, beyond anything else, all their ability to concentrate on the job in front of them. They were undaunted and unbowed. They took on such luminaries as Luis Figo, Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved and their hearts didn't miss a beat. They said they should show them all they had because they just had a shrewd idea that they might be able to counter even the best of it.

No doubt the lessons of Euro 2004 run deep and disturbing. Take away the old heads

Rehhagel and the Czech Karel Bruckner, and the driven but far from flawless Luiz Felipe Scolari, and the work of the coaches ranged from the undistinguished to the inept. With the exception of the fallen and ageing Nedved, not one established superstar augmented his reputation.

As Roman Abramovich's monster boat finally sailed away from its moorings on the Tagus waterfront, the conclusion was unavoidable: European football is swollen with money and, when it comes to the international game, starved of inspiration and a truly ambitious edge.

Wayne Rooney was a revelation even after his years of such precocious promise, a wondrous example of brilliant youth taking flight, but how well will he prosper amid the complacency and the excuses of his overrated team-mates?

For the moment, though, these are issues ­ along with the need for Uefa to examine properly the increasing reality of international football being dominated, and emasculated, by

the demands of the Champions' League and cash-drumming league programmes ­ which can take their place as pressing items on the football agenda. But now, still, it is time to celebrate the Greeks.

There is absolutely no need to overstate their case. They did not light up the sky above Lisbon with the beauty of their football. They did not offer new and daring tactical insights. We didn't get even a hint of the "total football" with which the brilliant Dutchman Rinus Michels revolutionised the game four decades ago. The coaching gurus will not be rewriting their dusty manuals.

But if enough people with power in the game care about what is happening at its highest level, they will try to grasp what the Greeks have done ­ and what big-time football needs to follow.

What did the Greeks do apart from turning Athens into a place of celebrations unknown since ancient martial victories? They restated the most glorious truth of sport. It is that if you work hard enough, if you draw together every element of your strength, if you are daring enough to believe that you have a kind of greatness within you, well, who knows, you might just achieve the impossible.

Would the Greeks have done it if France had been given a proper gameplan by Tottenham's new coach, Jacques Santini, a little width and a modicum of balance? If the Italians had not returned to that shell where all of their brilliance and culture so often die? If the Spanish had been recognisable as a front-rank football nation of talent and fire? If the Dutch, under the bizarre coaching of Dick Advocaat, had not fallen apart before our eyes?

And from our own glazed-eyed point of view, the biggest if of all, the one that asks what might have happened if Sven Goran Eriksson had gone to Portugal with a team prepared with just a fraction of the care and the thoroughness produced by the awkward and irascible Rehhagel.

You wouldn't take a bet on Eriksson-Rehhagel in any charm-based popularity contest, but then switch the issue to handling a team, exploiting its strength and patching its weaknesses, making the hard decisions about who is playing well and who is not, similarly there is simply no contest on the evidence of the last few weeks.

In the moment of supreme triumph the Greek captain Theo Zagorakis, after kissing the soil of Portugal, spoke for both his team and his nation: "It is something that I may spend the rest of my life wondering if it is true. We came here only to do our best, to give all we have for ourselves and our country, and, thank God, it was enough."

Yes, indeed, the still racing blood of all those who understood the scale of Greece's achievement is confirmation enough.

The beauty of the Greeks was not technical ­ they played well, and gave England a lesson in passing and economy ­ but nor was it solely emotional. Their best player was the tall, quick full-back Georgios Seitaridis. His battle with Cristiano Ronaldo ­ one of the tournament's great successes and no doubt somebody to stir the battered hopes of Old Trafford ­ was a beautifully poised and fiery engagement. Zagorakis was a marvellous leader and the big, statuesque stopper Traianos Dellas might have looked as if he had been carved out of the Acropolis, but when it mattered he was always in the right place.

You have to shed a little blood for the Portuguese; the first victims of the Greeks, they restored themselves with great courage and no little talent before again facing the unstoppable men from the Aegean. Scolari in the end was obliged to produce a white flag rather than a rabbit. He was slow to yank off Pauleta, who if he isn't scoring is scarcely even an adornment, and maybe he should have called time on the misfiring, diving Deco and given Rui Costa more scope to make the final statement of his international career.

These are mere details, however. They will shrivel soon enough, and what will we have left? Only the memory of the Greeks. It will surely never die.

YOU WHAT? THE GREATEST SHOCKS

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL

1 Greece on Sunday

2 USA 1 England 0, Belo Horizonte, World Cup, 1950

3 Cameroon 1 Argentina 0, World Cup, Italy, 1990

CLUB FOOTBALL

1 Hereford Utd 2 Newcastle Utd 1, FA Cup third-round replay, 1973

2 Nottingham Forest winning league, 1978

3 Wimbledon winning FA Cup, 1988

CRICKET

1 Ireland beat West Indies, 1969

2 India's series win over Australia, 2000

3 India beat West Indies, World Cup, 1983

OLYMPIC GAMES

1 Munich, 1972, basketball final, USSR 51 USA 50

2 Tokyo, 1964, Billy Mills wins 10,000 metres final

3 Lake Placid, 1980, ice hockey, USA 4 USSR 3

RUGBY UNION

1 France 43 New Zealand 31, World Cup semi-final, Twickenham, 1999

2 Wasps 24 Pertemps Bees 28, Powergen Cup quarter-final, 2004

3 South Africa 12 South America 21, Bloemfontein, 1982

GOLF

1 Francis Ouimet wins US Open, Brookline, 1913

2 John Daly wins US PGA at Crooked Stick, 1991

3 World No 396 Ben Curtis wins Open, Royal St George's, 2003

BOXING

1 Cassius Clay beats Sonny Liston, Miami Beach, 1964

2 Randolph Turpin beats Sugar Ray Robinson, London, 1951.

3 James "Buster" Douglas beats Mike Tyson, Tokyo 1990

RACING

1 Foinavon wins Grand National, 1967

2 Norton's Coin wins Gold Cup, 1990

3 Aboyeur wins Derby, 1913

TENNIS

1 Michael Chang beats Ivan Lendl, French Open fourth round, 1989

2 Maria Sharapova beats Serena Williams, Wimbledon final, 2004

3 Arthur Ashe beats Jimmy Connors, Wimbledon final, 1975

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