Zagorakis holds the reins in history ride

Russia v Greece: England's rivals in waiting
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The Independent Online

Last Thursday night, officials at the Football Association were probably dusting down a file that had lain dormant in Soho Square since October 2001, labelled Greece. That would have been after England's defeat of Switzerland brought ever closer the likelihood of them facing the tournament's surprise package in the quarter-finals.

Last Thursday night, officials at the Football Association were probably dusting down a file that had lain dormant in Soho Square since October 2001, labelled Greece. That would have been after England's defeat of Switzerland brought ever closer the likelihood of them facing the tournament's surprise package in the quarter-finals.

If results now go to form, starting with Greece's match against an already-eliminated Russian side today, followed by a hoped-for England draw or better against Croatia tomorrow, the two countries will meet for the first time since that momentous afternoon at Old Trafford over two-and-a-half years ago.

That Saturday, England qualified for the 2002 World Cup, avoiding defeat and a play-off thanks to David Beckham's injury-time equaliser from a free-kick. How the Greeks must have laughed when Zinedine Zidane inflicted a double-edged blow to Sven Goran Eriksson's side a week ago.

Greece were out of World Cup contention all that time ago, but they are now on the brink of reaching the knock-out stages of a tournament for the first time in their history. For the host country of this summer's Olympics, things are looking auspicious on the sporting front.

Something else getting a dusting down could be Emile Heskey. The former Liverpool striker may not be seeing much action at the moment in an England shirt but he could still prove useful in giving the lowdown on Greece's key performer and his former Leicester City team-mate, Theo Zagorakis.

Heskey won the 1997 League Cup with the man who is captain of his national team, and while Zagorakis was not seen as a star in the Muzzy Izzet or Robbie Savage mould in the Foxes' midfield, he performed a useful holding role in the centre before leaving on a free transfer to go home and play for AEK Athens in 2000.

Now, having inspired his country to beat the hosts, Portugal, in the opening game in Porto and helped them fight back to a draw with Spain, he is looking at creating football history with the country he has represented 92 times. Aged 32, he is nearing the end of his career, but is at his peak as an international player. He is revelling in it, too; as he says: "All these years with the national team and football in general, I have never had the chance to feel as proud as I have been feeling now. I consider our run very successful so far, since we have faced the favourites of the group, Portugal and Spain, and remain unbeaten.

"Being able to bring such joy to all Greek fans, especially those living abroad, gives me a unique and indescribable emotion. We don't think that we have become a super-team. We have been working and building on it step by step, day by day, and at the end of this journey we will evaluate what we have achieved."

A win for Greece in Faro and a draw between Spain and Portugal will ensure they come top of the group, but Zagorakis is also trying not to look too far ahead, to a clash with England. "Now we are focusing on the match against Russia, in order for us to achieve complete success," he says. "Nothing has finished yet, I mean it. We have a slight advantage, but we must get the result we want against Russia to say that we are through."

The brains behind the Greek charge is their German coach, Otto Rehhagel. He had taken the reins only a month before that 2001 England game, but he made his experience tell by guiding his side through a tough section, which again included Spain, to qualify automatically for Portugal.

In only Greece's third tournament, after Euro 80 and USA 94, Rehhagel has also warned against complacency. "Nothing has been won," he says. "Everyone thinks that we are already in the next round but this is not true." Zagorakis will be hoping to make it come true and set up a little tale of Greek revenge.

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