Upstart Greece faces toughest test

Greek soccer players warm-up during a training session in Durban on Sunday. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)

Greek soccer players warm-up during a training session in Durban on Sunday. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:07 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG -- They trickled out onto Toronto's famous Greek strip on Danforth Ave. Thursday, waving their blue-and-white flags and celebrating with that special Mediterranean flair they are known for throughout the world.

In the three hours before this impromptu street party, their beloved Greek national team had ignited similar reaction in Greek neighbourhoods throughout Canada by scoring its first World Cup goal and posting its initial World Cup victory.

Ever.

There was certainly reason to enjoy such an impromptu bash if you were a Greek fan, especially when you consider the huge odds the team had just overcome.

It was playing against a very talented Nigerian side. It was playing against a hugely partisan crowd at Bloemfontein's Free State Stadium, one that showed its overwhelming support for the African side en masse with every collective toot of their vuvuzelas.

And, most importantly, they were playing against history.

To emerge from such adversity with a monumental 2-1 victory was huge. But the path to Greek glory doesn't get any easier.

Standing in the way of Greece's potential berth in the Round of 16 is an Argentine squad that arguably has been the most impressive bunch in South Africa to date, outscoring its opponents 5-1 en route to winning both its games.

It stands to be a frosty evening when the Greeks walk out onto the pitch at Polokwane's Peter Mokaba Stadium on Tuesday, a setting where French players were forced to huddle on the bench and wear gloves during a recent match against South Africa.

Making conditions even more frigid will be the sight of the Argentine team across the field. First off, there will be Lionel Messi, the 2009 world player of the year. Behind him, dribbling one of the controversial Jabulani balls, will be Gonzalo Higuain, the only man to date to record a hat trick in this tournament.

And, standing over on the Argentine sideline, will be fireplug manager Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of cleats.

This is the daunting task Greece faces.

And even a monumental victory over the two-time World Cup champ Argentines does not guarantee the Greeks will advance. But that won't stop their zealous passionate supporters from daring to dream. Nor should it.

Remember 2004?

If you don't believe in miracles after what the Greeks did in those European championships six years ago, you never will.

Entering the tournament unranked when they arrived in Lisbon, the Greeks put on one of the most impressive title runs in soccer history, beating host Portugal twice and disposing of the formidable French and Czech Republic en route to the title.

From the moment the Greeks were anointed champions, jubilant fans poured on to the Danforth, thousands upon thousands of them, turning Toronto's fashionable Greektown into a scene even those in downtown Athens would have been proud of.

It's unlikely a victory over Argentina would create a celebration on such a grand scale. Then again, you never know. No one will. Not until the Greeks actually pull it off.

In order to do that, they'll have to play a game for the ages.

Yes, the South Americans only need a draw to advance. But, as Greek defender Vassilis Torosidis pointed out, the Greeks do not expect the Argentines to take the foot off the gas.

"I don't think Argentina will play indifferently," he said. "Nobody comes to these games without wanting to win ...

"Argentina is one of the favourites in this tournament with top-rated players. So what we have to do us just play football -- 11 on their side, 11 on ours. It's as simple as that."

That was the Greek recipe for success in 2004. And look how that turned out.

Now, as Greek fans cross their fingers for another miracle to transpire, they can take solace from the words of then-Greek captain Theodore Zagorakis from six years ago as he celebrated the greatest moment in his country's soccer history.

"We're going to take this Cup to the Greek people all over the world," Zagorakis said at the time. "I think we've given them something more than joy. We've given them great pride, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives."

Lives that would welcome yet another sporting miracle come Tuesday night.


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