Rehhagel's new legends explode the old myths

Fresh faces inhabit the Greek pantheon as the ancient order are shamed by comparison
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"Ancient Greece had 12 gods. This bus carries 11", runs the caption in the programme for Euro 2004 beneath a picture of the coach that is ferrying Otto Rehhagel's squad around Portugal. It seemed no more than a fanciful piece of wordplay - until Angelos Charisteas found France's Achilles heel with the header which set up a semi-final against the Czech Republic or Denmark in the Estadio Dragao here on Thursday.

Who better than the Greeks to debunk a few myths? They were the nation deemed terminally incapable of fulfilling their potential; the side who failed to win even once in their two appearances in major finals. Yet the current team came through the group stages ahead of Spain, and any England fan pondering the injustice or implausibility of Greece competing for a place in the final should reflect on this: they have now beaten both the hosts and the holders, the very countries that did for Sven Goran Eriksson's side.

While Greece has done away with its monarchy, the banners and chants in Lisbon and Athens on Friday proclaimed Rehhagel as "King Otto". The German manager has the hair colour of a 35-year-old - thanks, no doubt, to Grecian 2004 - though he he is actually 65. If not renowned for the Midas touch, he brought a respectable CV, including Bundesliga titles with Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern.

Being an outsider meant, crucially, he was not steeped in, or bound by, the rivalries and politics that have historically militated against Greece satisfying the craving of a passionate football nation. Rehhagel did not care whether players came from AEK, Olympiakos or Panathinaikos, the big clubs from Athens-Piraeus, merely in creating a balanced and organised unit with tactical awareness to complement their technical expertise.

He was fortunate, some say shrewd, in that his appointment coincided with the end of the insularity which long characterised the game in Greece. Before he took over, the national team drew more or less exclusively on the domestic league. Today, the players are scattered around Europe, from Bolton to Benfica and Madrid to Milan. The influences absorbed have helped to eliminate the naïveté which marked, for instance, a trio of goalless defeats at USA '94.

After the latest triumph, when the adventure assumed the aura of an odyssey, Rehhagel said the "individual skill" of Greece's players was "never in doubt". In his three years he had sought to inspire a team spirit. "That was all that was missing. They had to realise that rules exist, and that we must all work together. This result shows they understood that."

Stelios Giannakopoulos, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder who missed the quarter-final through injury, cited Greece's unity as a major factor in defeating France, saying: "We really love each other - you could see that." His view that Rehhagel has instilled a "German mentality", like the fact that Charisteas plays for Werder Bremen, merely rubbed salt in Germany's wounds.

There was dark irony for England, too. The 65th-minute goal was brilliantly made by Theo Zagorakis, whose impact at Leicester City was sufficiently unremarkable for a group of English reporters to mistake Georgios Karagounis for him after Greece's loss to Russia. Zagorakis's deft flick over Bixente Lizarazu, followed by a pinpoint cross that invited the fulminating finish it received, came from precisely the right-wing berth that David Beckham occupied so fitfully.

The contrast between Greek delight and English despair should not be explained away by twists of fate or refereeing quirks. In stoppage time, when Rehhagel's men could have been excused for clinging on, they attacked France with four players. His strategy was never undermined, like Eriksson's, by negativity.

The other great myth exposed in the Estadio Jose Alvalade was that of French invincibility. Conventional wisdom argued that the woefully inept defence of their World Cup two years earlier was a blip, caused by a combination of tiredness, overconfidence and misfortune. The statistics seemed to substantiate the claim, Les Bleus going into their match with Greece - who had never beaten them - undefeated in 16 games.

The reality, blurred by an unconvincing victory over Switzerland earlier in the week, was of a physically lethargic, tactically predictable team who struggled to break down the well-marshalled defences they encountered here. Jacques Santini, he of the Mr Bean eyes, moves on to manage Tottenham Hotspur. Hearing him bemoan France's "lack of ideas" and "poor technique", Spurs fans may be more guarded in their welcome than they would have been a fortnight ago.

His successor will be faced with a reconstruction job. Zinedine Zidane, now 32, should be around for the 2006 World Cup, despite acknowledging that elimination could mark "the end of a cycle". Sadly, Lizarazu, Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly, three of the five most-capped Frenchmen of all time, will be history. Neither Patrick Vieira nor Thierry Henry had the greatest of tournaments; a legacy, possibly, of their exertions with Arsenal. There will be greater concern, though, over the displays of David Trezeguet, who ranked alongside Beckham and Christian Vieri among the biggest disappointments of Euro 2004.

As they start an earlier-than-expected break, the country more associated in British minds with summer holidays than sporting achievement prepares to pen another chapter in the new tales of the Greek heroes. "Thank God I arranged my wedding for after the final," gushed the defender Takis Fyssas before boarding the bus. The deities have changed. Greece's football is finally following suit.