June 27, 2010

Danke Herr Otto!

Otto Rehhagel resigned as manager of the Greek national team following the team's elimination from the World Cup in South Africa.

'King Otto', a nickname he already had during his coaching career in Germany, is also called 'Kind der Bundesliga' (Child of the Bundesliga) having played in the very first Bundesliga game and enjoying an unprecedented number of records as a coach in the Bundesliga. He holds the records for the most victories, most draws, most losses, and his teams have scored the most goals and conceded more than any other.

He took charge of Greece in the summer of 2001 and in his first game as Greece's coach the team lost 5-1 to Finland in Helsinki on the same day that England beat Germany 5-1 for the same group qualification matches to the 2002 World Cup.

His next match for Greece took him to Old Trafford on that famous day that David Beckham was given no less than six chances in the closing minutes to score an equaliser from a spot-kick outside the area to send England to the World Cup. Besides the refereeing travesties of the day Greece stood tall in a game of no importance and not only did they score for the first time ever against England through Angelos Charisteas, but they comfortably gained a draw from an England team full of themselves.  This was the first sign of what Rehhagel could achieve with a team like Greece.

Then followed the qualification process for Euro 2004 which started badly with two 2-0 defeats to Spain at home and away to the Ukraine.  Amazingly, the team went on to win the remaining six matches, including a highly decisive 1-0 win away over Spain in their second matchup, securing first place in the group and an appearance in the European Championship finals for the first time in 24 years.

Expectations before the tournament were quite low, especially with memories of a bitter experience in the 1994 World Cup in the USA and also by having been drawn against the likes of Spain (again), Portugal (the hosts) and Russia for the group stage of Euro 2004.

After the Euro 2004 opening ceremony's floating ship reached the harbour the Greek 'pirate ship' took to the field of play and stole a remarkable win against their Portuguese hosts (2-1) with goals by Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas.

Next was Spain whose 1-0 half time lead in front of a largely Spanish crowd seemed to guarantee a win against a lacklustre Greek side obsessed on defence, but the breakthrough came in the form of an exceptional diagonal pass by Vasilios Tsiartas which allowed Angelos Charisteas to score the equaliser in the second half. The final score was 1-1 and the dream of progressing to the next round in a major tournament for the first time ever was drawing closer.

Russia, already eliminated, took to the field like a storm and with two goals in the first ten minutes of the last group game seemed to have unsettled the Greeks, but then came a goal by Zisis Vryzas to steer the Greek 'pirate ship' to the second round of Euro 2004. Thanks also goes out to Kirichenko for missing a great opportunity in the dying minutes of the match. Phew...

The European Champions of 2000 France were our opponents in the second round and we dispatched them with an amazingly orchestrated goal when on 65 minutes Angelos Basinas found Theodoros Zagorakis with a perfect pass on to the right side of the pitch, whose close control and dribble past Vixente Lizarazu enabled him to sent in a perfect cross to be met by the head of Angelos Charisteas and score. The French onslaught that followed petered out with a couple of close efforts by Thierry Henry, but Greece had done enough to become the first ever team to beat the hosts and the defending Champions in the same tournament.

In the semi-finals Greece was to face the Czech Republic, arguably the best team of the tournament who had already recorded a 3-2 win over the Netherlands, a 2-1 win over Germany and a 3-0 win over Denmark in the quarter-finals. The Greeks began nervously as Tomas Rosicky hit the crossbar and Jan Koller had several efforts saved by Antonios Nikopolidis, but the Czechs were dealt a crucial blow when Pavel Nedved left the pitch injured in the first half. The 90 minutes ended 0-0 and in the first period of extra time the Greek side seemed to be reborn as they took the game by the scruff of the neck and were rewarded with a silver goal on the last minute of the first half with a close range header by Traianos Dellas after an excellently taken corner by Vasilios Tsiartas, thus putting Greece into the Final of Euro 2004 sending the fans into raptures.

For the first time in history (as with so many other things in this tournament), the Final was a repeat of the opening game with Greece facing hosts Portugal in a rematch. In the 57th minute Angelos Charisteas gave Greece the lead with a header from a corner taken by Angelos Basinas. The Greek defence remained solid and allowed Portugal to have most of the possession, but nothing could overcome this Greek side, not even a Cristiano Ronaldo effort in the last minutes of the game, and the Greeks were deservedly crowned European Champions on July 4th 2004! This achievement was one of the greater, if not the greatest, football upset in history. Captain Theodoros Zagorakis was named man of the tournament having led Greece and made the most tackles in the tournament.

The triumph of Greece in Euro 2004 is the biggest sporting achievement in the country's history for a team sport, along with the successes of the Greek national basketball team in the 1987 and 2005 European Championships and the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

Unfortunately, the Greek national team failed to impress in the following two competitions, the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany were they lost 3-0 to Brazil, 1-0 to Japan and managed a 0-0 draw with Mexico and in their qualification group for the 2006 World Cup were they finished fourth four points behind group winners Ukraine and two points behind Turkey. Throughout the last match of that campaign the 30.000 fans at the Karaiskakis Stadium chanted the name of Otto Rehhagel in their utmost support which led Otto to say afterwards 'Even if 10 years pass, part of my heart will be Greek'.

Coming as the highest ranked seed out of the pot for Euro 2008 qualifying groups Greece were drawn with Turkey, Norway, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary, Moldova and Malta. The excellent start with victories over Moldova, Norway and Bosnia & Herzegovina was followed by a catastrophic defeat 4-1 to Turkey in Athens on the eve of the country's National Holiday celebrating our Independence from the Ottoman Empire. Symbolic for some, but Greece was reborn from its own ashes to go on and win the rest of their games, except for a credible 2-2 draw at Norway having hit the post three times, which included a 1-0 defeat of Turkey in their own backyard and took the first place in their group by storm and finishing with the most points than any other team amongst all the qualifying groups. This saw them rise to the 11th place of the FIFA World Rankings and after a preparation match for Euro 2008 which saw them beat Portugal 2-1 they managed to reach the 8th place which has been the best place they have ever achieved in the FIFA World Rankings.

A dismal display in the European Championships of 2008 was followed by Greece's early exit having failed to win a single point and having scored only once in three matches. Defeats were 2-0 to Sweden, 1-0 to Russia and 2-1 to Spain. The record shows that Greece were the first defending champion not to win a single point in the next European Championship.

The qualification for 2010's World Cup in South Africa was a major achievement for the Greek national team, which saw them finish second in their qualifying group against Switzerland (finished first having beat Greece twice), Latvia, Israel, Luxembourg and Moldova, but progressed thanks to a solitary goal in their second game at Donetsk against Ukraine in the play-off round.

In South Africa this summer a poor performance against South Korea was punished with a 2-0 defeat, but a spirited comeback against Nigeria in the second game saw them overturn a 1-0 Nigerian lead to a 2-1 win with goals by Dimitris Salpingidis and Vasilis Torosidis. These were the first points and first goals scored ever for Greece in a World Cup tournament; a relief for the many who were anticipating a thrashing similar to our participation in the 1994 World Cup in the US. Awaiting a combination of results in the team's last game in the group against Argentina, Greece exhausted their possibilities until the 77th minute when they fell behind and finally lost 2-0 finishing third in their group and eliminated from the World Cup.

And in South Africa ended the nine-year servitude of Herr Otto Rehhagel to the Greek national team and although many will criticize his team's style of play it's well worth remembering what the man himself has said, "No one should forget that a coach adapts the tactics to the characteristics of the available players".

June 4, 2010

In Rafa we did trust!

As Liverpool FC announced the departure of Rafael Benitez as team manager after a six year spell I would like to take this opportunity and pay my tribute to the man by reminiscing on those glory moments during his tenure at the helm of the club.

It was a chilly December night in 2004 that Liverpool FC took the field to outsmart the Greek champions, Olympiakos Piraeus, at Anfield with the sole purpose of progressing to the next round of the Champions League in their expense.  They fell behind by a Rivaldo free-kick and started the second half in desperate need of three goals (sounds familiar?).  My team on the night seemed to be holding on quite well and when the clock reached the 80th minute and Liverpool had only scored once (through Florent Sinama-Pongolle) I really believed that for once Olympiakos was going to be the team to make me proud.  Then walked in Neil Mellor in place of Milan Baros and changed the whole game with two excellent moves.  First a goal, which riled Anfield into a collective voice as noisy and raucous as it had been in years, and then a header that neatly cushioned the ball into Steven Gerrard's path to fire an unstoppable half volley past Antonios Nikopolidis and send the standing Kop into delirium.  I know that most remember this game because of Gerrard's goal, but I do because of Benitez's gamble on bringing on Neil Mellor in the closing minutes of the game.  A gamble which paid him back in gold!

May 25th 2005 - 15 minutes that shook the world? At half time the pundits had crowned AC Milan as Champions of Europe and were sure that Steven Gerrard was on his way to Chelsea.  So what was said at half time in Istanbul? Was Didi Hamann all Liverpool really needed? All I remember at half time was my brother calling me from Athens to voice his disappointment in Liverpool's performance.  'For crying out loud, this is Liverpool we're talking.  Where's Shankly's spirit?'.  I told my brother, both of us Olympiakos fans, that Liverpool have been there before (in need of three goals at half time) and managed to come on top: 'They'll do it again - believe me!'.  To be honest, I don't think I believed myself; this was AC Milan we were talking about! The unbelievable did happen: Steven Gerrard flew above all to score a header, Smicer put one past Dida from a mile away and Alonso scored after seeing his penalty (won by Gerrard) saved.  In extra time, the Hand of Dudek happened and in the penalty shootout Shevchenko thought he saw Grobelaar in goal (I think everyone did too).  From the depths of despair to an everlasting legacy!

Alan Hansen put it best, in describing the 2006 FA Cup Final, when he said that without one man West Ham would have had the trophy in their dressing room and would have been celebrating.  The Steven Gerrard show was what kept Liverpool in the game even when the captain couldn't stand on his own two legs.  That goal in the end reminiscing of that beauty against Olympiakos a year and a half ago send Liverpool and West Ham all the way to the penalty shootout where Pepe Reina was given a chance to redeem himself for his poor performance during normal time.  And boy did he take his chance as he saved not one, not two, but three spot-kicks! Credit though has to be given to West Ham for a fantastic performance which conspired in producing one of the most amazing FA Cup finals, which was stolen from their own hands by that man; Steven Gerrard!

Fernando Torres delivered a scintillating solo performance to torment his old adversaries Real Madrid and send Liverpool into the Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday 10th March 2009.  With a 1-0 Benayoun advantage carried from the Santiago Bernabeou Stadium everybody was expecting Liverpool to defend like mad in order to preserve that advantage.  Enter Fernando Torres and his opportunity to bring Real Madrid off their high-horse and exact revenge for the 'favour' they enjoy in the Spanish La Liga.  Torres's amazing runs ably supported by Steven Gerrard drove Liverpool to breathtakingly overwhelm Real Madrid to such a degree that if it wasn't for the outstanding Iker Casillas the score could have easily reached double figures. 4-0 was a kind reminder to Real Madrid that 'This Is Anfield'!

It had all looked rosy when Cristiano Ronaldo converted a first-half penalty, but it ended up in a real torment before the United fans left their 'Theatre of Nightmares'.  As Fernando Torres hounded Vidic, the tall Serbian centre-back endured an uncharacteristic nightmare afternoon conceding a multitude of mistakes which resulted in two Liverpool goals and a red card (third in a row against Liverpool).  No 'facts' and no 'stoppage time complaints'; nothing could derail Liverpool in their attempt to get back into the race to claim the Premier League title.  After the performance against Real Madrid earlier in the week, nobody expected Liverpool to deliver a similar performance twice in a row.  We all thought, play well defensively and grab one on the counter-attack and that may bring us a win at Old Trafford.  Bollocks! Liverpool went on the attack from the word go and besides suffering an initial setback they just carried on, outplayed Manchester United in their own backyard and delivered a stunning performance with a 4-1 win.  I will never forget Fabio Aurelio's cheekiness by scoring an amazing goal against Edwin Van der Sar from a spot-kick following Vidic's dismissal.

So, thanks for the memories Rafa and "you'll never walk alone"!

June 2, 2010

A self-determined democratic Palestine would be beneficial to both Israel & the United States.

The early part of the 1990's was a tumultuous time for the peoples of so many countries around the globe, who were dreaming of a change in their affairs and a liberation from constrains forced upon them by previous leaders and certain historic events.

Just in my neighbourhood at the time (the Balkans), the former Yugoslavia was violently torn apart, Greece and Turkey almost declared war on each other over an uninhabited isle and one by one the former Soviet satellites were getting rid of their dictators (peacefully or not).

The Wall fell!

In trying to make sense of all this, at a time when the internet was not at your fingertips, the following were the sources of information I had at my disposal:
- the Economist, which I was reading more for practicing the English language than understanding its world view,
- the Greek TV channels & newspapers, mostly polarized either to the right or the left, and
- political and foreign affairs theory books taken out from the libraries of the British Council and the Greek-American Union in Athens.

Two books that I took out from the Greek-American Union library were looking to the future and became the basis eventually of almost all US foreign policy matters, thanks to the hawks in Washington and George W. Bush's administration. 'The End of History and the Last Man' by Francis Fukuyama and 'The Clash of Civilizations (Remaking of World Order)' by Samuel P. Huntington.

Francis Fukuyama saw history as an evolutionary process that reached its end by stating that liberal democracy will become the only form of government for all States and that this form of government will be the last form of government.  The spread of democracy onto other States around the world as is preferred in the West started to become central in foreign affairs think-tanks all around the US.

Samuel P. Huntington took Fukuyama's position that the age of ideology had ended (democracy had won the argument) and offered his thesis on where conflict is tantamount to be sprung from.  He drew the lines of religion and culture and concluded that the biggest threat was 'Islamic Resurgence' and its convergence with China against the common enemy - the West!

So, here we are, almost 20 years later having seen events happen in front of our eyes, such as 9/11, the Iraq & Afghanistan wars, the bombings in London, Madrid & Bali, the nuclear threat of Iran & North Korea, the conflict between India & Pakistan to name just a few... and amongst all these events the continuous failure of navigating Israel & Palestine on the road to peace.

The Palestinian people are tired of being used as cannon fodder for the survival of both extremist views, on their land and across their border with Israel, but have been forced to either behave as traitors to their own cause of self-determination or side with the extremists on their side (Hamas & Hezbollah).  All they want is a roof over their heads, food on the table, clean water, sustained electricity and the end of living in constant fear of their lives.  Human dignity and pride in their accomplishments as free people is all that every human being desires; but when and how will that happen for the Palestinians?

These things have been discussed and agreed before by both sides together with the mediation of either the UN or the US, but every single time a step is made in the right direction the extremists come forth and ruin it.  This happens every time because as the moderates are paving the road to peace and attempt to put the extremists out of the picture, the extremists on both sides realise that they need each other to survive in their positions of power and with just one rocket or one building being built illegally they manage to sabotage the whole thing and sent both peoples back to the starting point.  An eye for an eye then keeps them apart again for a long time!

The US, for its own benefit, should step in to genuinely broker a peace process between the two and make them stick through it until a self-determined democratic Palestine is established abiding by international laws and treaties.  Why should the US do this? Because it would have proven its sincerity in promoting peace and change in the world (promoting democratic ideas also if you wish) to the point were the extremists in other parts of the same region will have no grounds to cry 'Death to America' and become marginalized and unimportant in their own countries.

With the help of America (and Israel) the Palestinian people will be able to show the way to the other nations around the region and promote human rights and democratic ideas in the Arab world.  They don't have to subscribe to each and every one of the characteristics of the Western way of life, but subjects close to every human being on the planet such as human rights are, should become a matter of debate in all these countries.

Imagine of the potential, Palestine would allow as an example to follow, for the people across all the dictatorships in the area, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Do not forget that most of the terrorists that operated during 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and professed as much hatred towards the US as they did towards their own government.  American dollars for oil is what keeping these people in their places of dictatorial power.

I understand that when speaking of governments and people in power their prevailing aim is to maintain the status quo, but I firmly believe that the ordinary people of the world are ready for these changes and that they have already started voicing their opinions.  

Here I am joining them with my voice!