Over to You

THE NEW GREEK GODS

It was great fun being in Athens when Greece became the soccer champ

DANYLO HAWALESHKA July 19 2004
Over to You

THE NEW GREEK GODS

It was great fun being in Athens when Greece became the soccer champ

DANYLO HAWALESHKA July 19 2004

THE NEW GREEK GODS

Over to You

It was great fun being in Athens when Greece became the soccer champ

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

MY GREEK WIFE, Stavroula Logothettis, sometimes tells the story about how she, as a kid, would go with her parents to one of the open-air cinemas in Athens to watch black-and-white movies, mostly comedies. She’d delightedly gobble pumpkin seeds and wash them down with her favourite orange soda. I always considered it a lovely story, but never gave it much thought beyond that. This year, we were fortunate that our work brought us both to her Mediterranean place of birth, and one of the things we wanted to do in our free time was relive a bit of her past by catching a movie under the stars. Instead of a film,

though, we watched history being made.

Our timing was fortuitous: we were in Athens when Euro 2004, the 16-nation European soccer championship, was underway in Portugal. Previously, Greece had qualified for only two major international tournaments (Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup), but had then failed to register so much as a single victory. So Greek fans were just thankful their team made it to the tournament. But then something totally unexpected happened—Greece won the opener in Lisbon, beating the host team 2-1. And the fairy tale continued as the Greek team—a group of relatively unknown players who’d entered the tournament at 80-1 odds—made it past the group stage and into the quarter-finals. This was particularly satisfying in light of the fact that traditional powerhouses like Italy and Spain failed to make it that far.

Greece’s joy in watching its Herculean heroes succeed was like nothing I’ve ever seen. One warm night, sitting out on an Athenian balcony, cool breezes soothed our sun-darkened skin as we gazed out across the sparkling city. In front of us, in a four-storey apartment building, we could see the colourful glow of the many TV sets tuned to the game being played at the time. It seemed like everyone was watching. For me, the only thing that comes close to matching the experience might be taking in the Stanley Cup finals, or a gold medal hockey game at the Winter Olympics. But Canadians win at hockey all the time. Success at this

high level of soccer was unprecedented for Greece, and the country relished it.

Guided by German coach Otto Rehhagel, Greece dispatched defending champions France and the fleet-footed Czechs, who’d been favoured to go all the way, to earn a spot in the July 4 final against Portugal. And along the way, the country began to believe in itself. Not unlike Canadians, Greeks form a small nation, and they need accomplishments on the world stage to make them feel good about themselves. Soccer—or foot-

ball as it’s called outside North America— was doing it.

My wife and I took in the final game at one of those quaint outdoor cinemas she remembers from her youth, in the trendy Psiri district of Athens. Very civilized. Scattered throughout the place were tiny round tables on which to rest drinks—alcoholic or otherwise. A bag of pistachios went well with the beer. The screen was as big as the ones found in mid-size theatres in Canada, and the place was packed with attractively dressed young men and women. The breeze occasionally wafted second-hand smoke

across the intense white beam of the projector bulb.

When forward Angelos Charisteas scored in the 57th minute, fans exploded from their chairs. They knew. Even though more than 30 minutes remained, it was the only goal they would need for victory. After all, Greece’s dogged defence had already proven adept at smothering its often flashier opponents. Patrons at the cinema set off fireworks, chanting “Ellas, Ellas, Ellas” (which is what they call Greece) and hugging. The scene became even more intense at game’s end. People sang a song about the victory cup itself, which, roughly translated, went something like, “Raise it up, the damn thing, I’m tired of waiting for it.” There were more fireworks, and this time, out on the streets, occasional pistol shots fired into the air. The party was on, across the country. Car horns honked madly well into the morning. We were part of history.

Antonios Margetis watched the final on Mykonos, a popular resort island. A few days later, the 22-year-old student of maritime business and law told me how so much had changed with that game. Margetis is a devout fan of the Olympiakos Piraeus football club. He can’t stand fans of the Panathinaikos club, much less teams from other nations. “I could never imagine a German celebrating with me, and I could never imagine hugging a Panathinaikos fan,” says Margetis. But they did. “This thing united us.” Greece has been relentlessly questioned in the media about its ability to pull off the Summer Olympic Games. The Euro 2004 victory gave Greeks reason to think they can do anything. “When you see this, there’s hope,” said Yannis Lapatas, a TV and film director. “If everyone pulls together, we can do it.” It was wonderful to be part of it all, under the Aegean stars. CT1

Danylo Hawaleshka is a Maclean’s senior writer. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca