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Daily Telegraph

WHEN you have proved your critics wrong, and against all expectation you are clearly going to be ready for the Games, what should you do as an encore?

Why, bring on your football team who have surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by suddenly becoming the champions of Europe.

This is exactly what the Greeks did yesterday. The script might have been written in the Athens Organising Committee as the national football team took the field on their home soil for the first time since they won Euro 2004.

Here they were marking the start of the Olympic men’s football tournament at Athens 2004. To make the occasion perfect, the setting – against a backcloth of picturesque mountains – was the Alexandra Stadium, named after Alexander the Great, whose birthplace is just up the road. Some 26,000 Thessalonikians packed the stadium and the noise of their drums and chants suggested there was double the number.

It is one of the curiosities of the Olympics that, for months before, so much attention is on the opening ceremony, yet the action on the field always begins two days before the actual ceremony, far away from the city where the Games are being hosted – and the opening sport is always football.

To some extent, this has the feel of a rehearsal – not quite the genuine thing. The Olympic teams are essentially Under-23 sides – each is allowed three overage players – and countries see it as providing a test for players of the future. So Greece yesterday fielded only one player from the team who won Euro 2004, and a bit player at that in Papadopolous Dimitrios. As if in compensation, almost immediately after the kick-off he made such a high challenge on a Korean defender that he was lucky to get only a yellow card.

Papadopolous was reflecting the fervour of the Greeks’ junior side As if to make up for the ultra-defensiveness of the senior team, they attacked relentlessly. Agritis Anastasios hit the bar and they were unfortunate to go in at half-time a goal down.

The goal came from the sort of defensive error Greece never showed during Euro 2004. Cho Jae-jin gathered a poorly cleared ball at the edge of the box and hit it powerfully. This was the cue for some remarkable Korean celebration. A small knot of supporters were keen to recreate the World Cup of 2002.

When in the second half Fotakis put the ball into his own net it seemed the rehearsal would go terribly wrong.

But Taralidis came on and scored with almost his first touch. Then Papadopoulos equalised from the spot. The Greeks could have won after that – but that might have proved too perfect a rehearsal.

© Mihir Bose

      

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