Rehhagel plans surprise ending to epic tale of Greek bravery

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The Independent Football

Not since Jason set out with his Argonauts in pursuit of the Golden Fleece has there been a Greek Odyssey to match the one which has unfolded in Portugal these past three weeks. Even Homer might struggle to do justice to the epic achievement of a team which caused a surprise simply by reaching Euro 2004.

Having been hailed as "Gods" by the Hellenic media just for beating Portugal in the opening match, their first victory in any major championships, the appropriate superlatives will be as hard to find as the Fleece should they repeat that success against the hosts in tomorrow night's final.

Portugal are favourites but that, said Stelios Giannakopoulos, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder who is expected to replace the suspended Giorgos Karagounis tomorrow, is the way the Greeks like it. "All the pressure will be on them, we prefer that," he said.

The only time Greece have lost is when they were expected to win, against Russia in the group stages. They have since added the scalps of France and the Czech Republic and should not be underrated. Confidence is high and they can play with the freedom of men who know they are already heroes. "Every player in the Premiership would like to be in my place," said Giannakopoulos. "It is a dream for us. Every last Greek person all over the world is happy because of what we have achieved."

Ranked 35th in the world, the 100-1 outsiders have displayed solid organisation, clever tactics, hard work and the ability to seize an opportunity. When important team members have been injured or suspended they have not been missed. They have a core of experienced players, many of them fresh after truncated seasons, who have found form together. More than half the team play for Greek clubs, which would once have been a handicap, but the expansion of the Champions' League has enabled them to gain international experience.

Then there is Otto Rehhagel, the veteran German coach who has brought an independent if egotistical mind, and Teutonic discipline, to the task. "He has made us into a very solid team," said Giannakopoulos. "He has brought a German mentality to our football and that has been very important."

Being foreign he has also been able to steer clear of the internal politics which bedevils a domestic game that has been brought to its knees by hooliganism and financial mismanagement. With successive governments failing to clean up the sport, there was, amid the jubilation in Athens, a respected voice of dissent.

Makis Triantafyllopoulos, the investigative reporter who uncovered a match-fixing scandal 18 months ago, wrote in the daily newspaper Kathimerini: "We can continue with the cheap exploitation of the national team's triumphs before returning to the misery of the domestic championship or we can seize the opportunity ... and take measures for a radical overhaul." He added: "Greek football now has two faces - abroad we do well and at home things are a complete mess. The problem isn't just the hooligans, it's the kind of people who are running the game. When you control the referees you don't have to spend your money on players and stadiums to be successful."

Among the effects of this crisis is the imminent collapse of AEK Athens, who employ five of the Greek squad including the captain Theo Zagorakis. So far Greece have been able to put aside this distraction, and a dispute about bonuses with their FA, when the whistle goes. They will need to be just as single-minded in the Estadio da Luz as Portugal have improved dramatically from the nerve-stricken team which folded in the opening game.

Luiz Felipe Scolari made four changes after that match, bringing in the spine of the Porto team which won the Champions' League. They have responded so well Portugal are in line to become the first country to lift both trophies since the Netherlands followed PSV Eindhoven's European Cup success in 1988.

In another parallel the Dutch lost their opening game, to the Soviet Union, then beat the same opponents in the final. No other team has won this competition after starting with a defeat. Nor, incidentally, has one won with a foreign coach, a record which will change for Scolari is Brazilian and Rehhagel German.

So is the referee Markus Merk. Embarrassingly for Uefa, Rehhagel made a delicate situation explosive when he said: "I am glad that Markus is refereeing the final. I have known him since he was 15-years-old." He hurriedly added: "He has always been very strict with me. He sent me into the stands once so I'm sure there will not be a problem."

Rehhagel is likely to try to shackle Portugal's attacking flair, probably by asking his wide men to push up on the attacking full-backs, Miguel Monteiro and Nuno Valente, and man-marking Deco and Luis Figo, the latter task a job for the impressive Giourkas Seitaridis. However, the Greek might surprise and unsettle the hosts with an early burst of attacks.

With Porto winning the Champions' League, and the unheralded Colombian team Once Caldas this week defeating Boca Juniors to lift the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent, 2004 is shaping up as football's Year of the Underdog. Unless Portugal play to potential, using the crowd's expectation as a inspiration not a burden, Greece will produce the biggest shock since Troy's security guards failed to check the contents of the Wooden Horse.

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