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Monday, August 23, 2004


The Greek (and German) Gods Went Crazy! But How, Exactly?

The following article was written shortly after Greece won the Euro 2004 soccer championship, but could not be published earlier because of our special edition dedicated to the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). Given the unusually good efforts to date of the Greek basketball team at the Olympics, however, it remains timely and on-point. —

“When the Danes were the surprise winners of this tournament back in 1992,” intoned BBC commentator John Motson, “they had virtually come from the beaches,” a reference to the last-minute early summer entry of Denmark in the European soccer championships that year because civil-war-torn Yugoslavia had been excluded. “But these Greeks,” Motson continued, “have come from nowhere!” It was a backhanded compliment, offered in the closing minutes of the 2004 final of the European championship, as Greece held on to a 1-0 lead over their opponents, host Portugal. The final whistle that triggered ecstatic Greek celebrations obliged the hitherto skeptical British, French, and Germans soccer experts to acknowledge — begrudgingly — Greece’s astonishing achievement.

The quadrennial European soccer championship, Europe’s equivalent of the World Cup held since 1960, is a serious business. All of Europe’s national sides are divided into groups and spend two years playing home and away games designed to yield the final 16 teams that will participate in the month-long final round. With the exception of surprise winner Denmark in 1992, the list of winners resembles an honors list of the traditional European soccer powers: three-time winner Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and two former greats, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Greece made it to the 2004 tournament as a rank outsider, with little to show in terms of past success. It had been to the European finals only once before, in 1980, losing to then-Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands and tying then-West Germany. In its 1994 appearance at the World Cup finals, Greece lost three out of three games.

Playing with words
It was, therefore, with a great deal of good will that the Portuguese organizers painted the sides of the official Greek bus with the legend, “Ancient Greece Had 12 Gods. Modern Greece Has 11.” They may have begun to regret that depiction of modern Greece at the end of the tournament’s opening game, when Greece beat Portugal 2-1, with Portugal’s only goal coming seconds before the final whistle. Indeed, no one could have anticipated how apt the reference to Greek gods was during the weeks that followed, as Greece went on to reach the final and defeat Portugal — a rare instance in which the opening-game pair met again in the final.

As it turned out, the legend on the side of their bus was merely the opening shot in a barrage of wordplay regarding the Greeks. They soon became the most nicknamed team of the 16 national sides in Portugal. One headline read, “The Greek Gods Are Crazy,” and references to Greece’s outsider status became more and more frequent as it overcame European Cup-holder France in the quarterfinals. Ever “the dark horse,” Greece now became the dark Trojan horse, and when Greece defeated the Czech Republic in the semifinal round, the victory was touted as the biggest for the Greeks since the fall of Troy. In the final, played against the host team, a British commentator alluded to the favoritism referees purportedly show to the home team by observing, “we had better not talk about the referee being a homer, not with the Greeks around….” And, of course, what better way to sum up Greece’s overall performance than to call it a Herculean effort?

From clichés to causes
As Greece progressed through each stage of the tournament, the play on Greek words came easier, while words about the Greek play became more difficult. The first win against Portugal could have been due to the hosts’ opening-day nerves. But the second game, a 1-1 tie against Spain, a tournament favorite, raised eyebrows. How did the Greeks do it? Were they playing a negative, defensive game, with a few opportunistic counterattacks? Or were they playing a nicely organized and disciplined game, with a few planned counterattacks?

Speculation continued after Greece, 2-0 down to Russia and under pressure, managed to score a goal that was enough to send the Greeks into the quarterfinal round. By that time, the German media, at least, were not equivocating. The real cause of the Greek success, according to them, was Greece’s German coach, who, like a typical German, believed in discipline and organization. They were quick to name Otto Rehhagel as Greece’s King Otto — which would have made him Otto II according to protocol, since Greece’s first nineteenth-century monarch was the Bavarian Otto I.

The debate heated up after Greece went into the final four by eliminating France with a well-executed header by Angelos Charisteas. French winger Robert Pirès said after the game that “there are no words to explain it,” but experts were just getting going, as the shock result flashed around the world. French coach Jacques Santini conceded that his team had come up against a “tightly knit defense,” but there was much more to be said. Several London-based pundits, with time on their hands since England had already been eliminated in the quarterfinals, began complaining that Greece’s style was not exciting. This despite England’s reputation for favoring a kick-and-run style over skillful play focused on ball possession — a strategy routinely disparaged in all places of the world that were not part of the British Isles. Several French players and commentators joined in the hand-wringing, although the celebration of the virtues of a well-trained, disciplined side — coached by a German — continued across the Rhine.

After Greece held the Czechs in the semi-final round, scored a late goal, and went to the final, the critics began conceding the worth of the Greek style. Many purists emphasized that the Greek victory was an excellent example of the potential of dedicated teamwork, and Rehhagel’s admirers were no longer only the Germans and Greeks.

The view from the top
The Greeks themselves were desperately searching for the appropriate metaphors and explanations for the unfolding miracle on Portuguese turf. In some ways, they were the least surprised, at least by the team’s strong opening. A sports Website had quoted some of the players who had said, “Denmark did well in 1992, so can we in 2004.” The players went to Portugal determined to win at least one game, forward Angelos Charisteas said, and this implied a will to compete and win, a relatively recent attitude among Greek athletes (see “Greek Sports: Hasta la Victoria Siempre!, April 15, 2002). And Greece’s strong showing in the preliminary round of Euro 2004, played over the previous 18 months and designed to produce the 16 that would go to the finals in Portugal, gave the Greek players considerable confidence.

During that phase, Greece had won on the road in Armenia, Northern Ireland, and Spain. Their arrival in Portugal had not been a fluke (see “Greek Soccer (Improbably) Bids for European Glory,”, September 19, 2003). But the extraordinary results the team got once in Portugal were greeted with a mixture of incredulity and a consensus that the German coach and his system were at the core of Greek success. This mixture of the irrational and rational was encapsulated in the verse sung in the stands, in the streets, but also in the Greek locker room: Einai trellos, einai trellos, einai trellos o Germanos! (He is crazy, he is crazy, the German is crazy!)

After the victory over France, the explanations of how exactly the Greek gods and their German coach had gone crazy and beaten the European (and former world) champions veered from rational to cultural. Respect for the organization and discipline instilled by Coach Rehhagel into the team deepened even further, but the result was so unbelievable that it made commentators reach for cultural factors. Greece was doing so well, according to this interpretation, because it was combining German organization with Greek spirit (ellênikê psychê).

Yet, at the same time, this had all become too much for the Greeks, and rational and cultural explanations were simply inadequate. “Parakalô Mê Me Xypnate Akoma” (“Please Don’t Wake Me Up Yet”) read a blue-and-white t-shirt being sold in Athens and echoing what the players were saying in postgame interviews. They themselves could not believe what was going on; they thought it was all a dream.

Sometime before the quarterfinal victory over France and the last-minute goal against the Czechs in the semifinal, disbelief morphed into a playful confidence on the part of the crowds cheering in the streets of every Greek town and village and in the stands in Portugal. The fans proclaimed their impatience and demanded that their team lift the cup, even before Greece had made it through the quarterfinals: Sêkose to, to gamêmeno, then borô, then borô na perimenô!  (rough rhyming translation: “Lift it up, will you please, motherfucker; I can’t wait, I can’t wait, for the sucker….”) Perhaps the impatient bravado had to do with the fear that everything might be a dream after all.

Let a hundred flowers bloom…
Upon its return to Greece following its victory, the team was treated to a formal celebration at the Panathênaic Stadium. Official celebrations of sports victories are organized for politicians to get into the act. This was no exception, but what made it interesting was the blossoming of several novel interpretations of how the victory had been achieved and what it meant for the Greeks.

In what some may consider an odd implementation of protocol, the first official speaker was Christodoulos, archbishop of Greece. The prelate, who awarded crosses to the players and coach, hailed the Greek victory as a sign of what the Greeks could do when they were united, and thanked them for becoming the first Orthodox nation to win the European Cup (presumably the Soviet victory in 1960 had been achieved by atheists). Dora Bakogiannê, the mayor of Athens, was up next. She awarded honorary citizenship of the municipality of Athens to the players and coach. In her speech, Bakogiannê echoed the unity theme, adding that dedication and will to succeed had also been crucial. All this, she said, augured well for the Olympic Games, which would go very well because the Greeks would display similar qualities. Finally, Fanê Pallê-Petralia, the deputy minister of culture responsible for the Olympic preparations, gave out another set of awards and, naturally, linked the success in Euro 2004 — the organization, will to win, and teamwork — to the upcoming Olympics.

The honorees were allowed to speak as well. Rehhagel, speaking in German (with Bakogiannê ably translating), spoke about organization and discipline. Team captain and Player of the Tournament Thodôrês Zagôrakês spoke about how the support of all the Greeks had inspired the team, and about how the victory showed the potential of the ellênikê psychê.

The next day, the team met Kôstês Stefanopoulos, the country’s president. In his speech, Stefanopoulos ran the gamut of the many explanations of how the Greeks had won and what it meant for the country and the success of the Olympics in August. But in a sign of what he really thought, he commended Coach Rehhagel’s tactics at length, claiming that the team had not played a negative, defensive game, but a creative, disciplined one. In the end, the Greek president seemed to say, the Greek gods may have been crazy, but, with Rehhagel leading them, they proved to be crazy like a fox.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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