Poor Greece look a spent force

Eight years ago they produced a stunning success but there looks to be little hope of a repeat

Heard the one about the Greeks, the German and the Euro? Strange as it seems given the economic crisis gripping Greece, there was a time not so long ago when Euro was less a dirty word for many of its citizens than a cause for national celebration.

It was in summer 2004 that a Greece team led by a German coach, Otto Rehhagel, became the improbable continental champions thanks to a 1-0 victory over Portugal in the European Championship final in Lisbon. "A football miracle that will be very difficult to repeat" is how Stelios Giannakopoulos, the former Bolton Wanderers midfielder, remembers it.

"We didn't go there to win the tournament but game after game we saw that anything is possible. Rehhagel played a big part. He came into a Greek group of players and put German discipline together with the Greek talent – it was a very good combination," adds Stelios, offering an unwitting slogan for Angela Merkel.

Greece had not won a single game at a major tournament prior to Euro 2004 but a 2-1 victory over Portugal in the opening match set them on a fairytale run that included the quarter-final dethroning of France. As their captain and one-time Leicester City midfielder Theodoros Zagorakis puts it: "We began thinking we could do something big."

So it proved but as their successors prepare to face co-hosts Poland in another Euro curtain-raiser in Warsaw on Friday, the achievement of Rehhagel's team feels like a distant dream. On the pitch, Greece topped their qualifying group ahead of Croatia but have won only one of five warm-up matches since –1-0 in Armenia on Thursday – which hardly augurs well, despite their presence in the competition's weakest section. Yet it is off the pitch that Greek football – mirroring the society around it – faces its biggest challenge, whatever welcome distractions Euro 2012 might provide.

"The financial problem is very big and has influenced football," says Stelios, now president of the Greek PFA. "Even some big clubs in Greece have massive problems." If the most successful side, Olympiakos, benefit from their annual Champions' League income, the two other major Athens teams, Panathinaikos and AEK, each have estimated debts of at least €50m, with the latter among several clubs so far denied a licence to compete in next season's Super League.

Zagorakis himself had to step down as president of PAOK Salonika in January after fans reacted angrily to his decision to sell the club's star player, Vieirinha, to help balance the books. He believes Greek clubs must act now to "minimise their debts" and sees PAOK's own focus on youth players as the only way forward.

If Greece is the sick man of Europe, two news stories from the past 12 months highlight the ill health of its football. Last June a bribery scandal broke after Uefa officials handed the Greek authorities a report into irregular betting patterns, mostly involving second-division and cup fixtures. There were 70 arrests, including Vangelis Marinakis – the shipping magnate and Olympiakos chairman– as well as the Olympiakos and Greece defender Avraam Papadopoulos.

Marinakis, who stepped down as the Super League president last summer, was charged with complicity to commit acts of bribery and match manipulation but in the end the only parties punished were Olympiakos Volou and Kavala, two top-flight clubs demoted three divisions – and their jailed owners.

A survey published this year by FIFPro, the world players' union, into football in 12 countries in eastern Europe added grist to the rumour mill: it found 30 per cent of players in Greece had been approached to consider fixing the result of a match, while 47 per cent said they were aware of fixed matches. Moreover, of the 505 players polled, 67.5 per cent do not receive their salaries on time – with some waiting for up to a year.

Those in the national squad are the lucky ones, however. "I do not believethat the Greece players are affected by the economic situation," says Zagorakis. Stelios concurs: "Some play abroad and those in Greek clubs mainly don't have any issues because sooner or later they will get paid."

There is no problem for their Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos, either, who recently received a much-reported salary rise to €600,000 annually. That said, in the run-up to Euro 2012, the Greece players have voiced their desire to give the public at home some much-needed cheer – Georgios Karagounis, one of the survivors of 2004, spoke of helping them "forget for a short time, at least, the problems of everyday life".

Stelios believes this could provide an extra spur and hopes history might repeat itself for Greece – on Friday at least. "The first game will be a key game because we play the hosts and [as when] we played Portugal in the opening game at Euro 2004, the Polish are going to have big pressure because the whole nation is going to expect them to win. They will be nervous, they will be under pressure and we have to take advantage of that."

If not, the final group game against Russia on 16 June could lead to some unwanted headlines the next morning. Just imagine, "Greece exit Euro" on the very day the country's voters go back to the polls.

News
Jeremy Clarkson
people
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own