Greek gods

FRANK ZICARELLI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:22 AM ET

No longer cast as underdogs and no longer able to fly under the radar, Greece is again the word at European soccer's pre-eminent event.

No one should dare think of uttering the words defending Euro champion, but Greece finds itself in that position as Switzerland and Austria play host to the quadrennial showcase.

What Greece accomplished four years ago in Portugal was nothing short of brilliant, captivating the sporting world at large with its team-oriented play en route to capturing the championship in a final matchup that featured the host nation.

German-born coach Otto Rehhagel was offered Greek citizenship in the wake of his team's conquest.

"A gift from God'' was how many Greeks referred to their team's historical achievement.

This was, after all, a soccer program that had failed to win a single match at any major tournament prior to Portugal.

Pitted in a group with Portugal, Spain and Russia, Greece was given no chance of winning a game.

Greece would go through and in a series of soccer shockers the sport had never seen, and perhaps never will again, the no-name Greeks knocked off France and the Czechs before they toppled the favoured Portuguese.

Whether Greece's run of four years ago was merely the byproduct of hard work and perseverance or simply the soccer stars all aligned at the right moment, one cannot overlook this year's side and the potential for a repeat.

"The Euro 2008 will most likely see the strongest Greek squad of all time," midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos said.

After failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2006, Greece appears poised to again disprove the naysayers.

A win over Portugal in a friendly, Greece's third in a row over the proud Portuguese squad, assured Greece of its highest ranking in the FIFA pecking order -- No. 8.

While the years have elapsed, Greece once again will rely on its strength.

"We're quite simply a well organized team and we all work for one another," Giannakopoulos said.

Rehhagel, who is approaching 70, is hailed as the primary force behind Greece's remarkable ascent in the soccer hierarchy.

The man known as "King Otto" was anointed coach in 2001 and is now under contract until 2010.

When he took over the program, Greece's demanding press dubbed the task as "Mission Impossible.'' In Rehhagel's debut, Greece lost to Finland, 5-0.

But that was then.

Today, there are expectations after setting the bar so high. No longer can teams afford to look past Greece, which will be in a group with Spain, Russia and Sweden.

Spain (ranked fourth by FIFA) is the only team ranked higher than Greece, which means, unlike four years ago, the Greeks will be expected to advance to the knockout phase.

Logic dictates that Greece is unlikely to duplicate its run in Portugal, but tell that to Theofanis Gekas.

"We have similar goals to the ones we had four years ago,'' Gekas, 27, said. "We want to play good football, will take each game as it comes and will always give our best.

"We can't say if (winning) will happen again or not. We look to go as far as we can.

"To be participating in a second straight European Championship is already a success in itself.''

Gekas is considered a goal scorer who often turned heads while playing for his club team in Germany.

The Greek attack is spearheaded by Angelos Charisteas, whose header in the final four years ago proved to be the game's lone goal.

But it's Greece's ability to stifle opponents that likely will determine how far it goes. What Greece accomplished four years ago gives every team, regardless of pedigree, inspiration.

"Everyone has a chance to win it,'' Gekas said.

"Nobody banked on us doing so four years ago. People thought we would be the first team to crash out, but it all turned out completely different."


Photos