Greeks out to bring some rare Euro cheer

AFP, Thursday 7 Jun 2012

Greece are aiming to give their hard-pressed compatriots back home a rare moment of cheer on Friday when they take on co-hosts Poland in the opening match of Euro 2012

the new National Stadium
The aerial view made from a hot air balloon shows the new National Stadium, ready for the Euro 2012 football games, in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: AP)

The Greeks have as a national squad been left largely untouched by the enormous financial hardships experienced by their fellow citizens, because of the cuts imposed due to the bailout terms imposed by the EU and others, but almost to a man their hearts are with them.

"We are a new team, with a lot of new players who are taking part in a major tournament for the first time," said Celtic striker Georgios Samaras, 27.

"All of us have on our mind the match with Poland and nothing else. As for how far the team can go, we will see in each match separately. It would be nice to give joy to the Greek people once again."

The squad is captained by Panathinaikos midfielder Giorgios Karagounis, 35, who scored the first goal in the shock opening win of the Euro 2004 finals against hosts Portugal, and he echoed Samaras' mood.

"We want to give joy to the Greeks. We will do our best, without stress and pressure, and hopefully bring back beautiful memories," said Karagounis, who went on to lift the trophy with his team-mates in 2004 beating Portugal again in the final.

At 24, Giorgos Tzavellas is one of the younger members of a Greek squad, whose average age is 27, but he is supremely confident they can spoil the Poles party.

"We don't have anything to fear against Poland," he said.

"I believe we can repeat our effort of 2004 when we spoiled the opener for the home team."

For Poland's young squad, average age just under 25, Euro 2004 is a boyhood memory.

Their stars number the likes of striker Robert Lewandowski, 23, who has enjoyed a stellar season with German double winners Borussia Dotmund, and Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, 22.

Polish football's long-lost glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, marked by Olympic medals and World Cup third places, are ancient history for that generation.

Over the past decade, Poland have raised and wrecked fans' hopes, with solid qualifying campaigns for the 2002 and 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 turning into poor finals performances.

But the new side crafted by manager Franciszek Smuda since he took the helm in October 2009 are not overwhelmed by fans' expectations..

"All of us have played important matches, and will have more important ones still, in our career. I'm sure each one of us will handle that pressure," said Szczesny.

Midfielder Maciej Rybus, also 22, said he could barely wait for Friday's kick off.

"I'd like the Greece match to be today," he said.

"I'm going into the game with a really positive attitude. Greece are a good team, but on Friday we plan to prove we're better."

On paper, Poland are the 16-nation European championship's weakest team, ranked 62nd in the world by FIFA. They earned their berth only as hosts, like fellow organisers Ukraine.

Having failed to reach the 2010 World Cup, and not having had to qualify for Euro 2012, Poland will have gone 968 days with nothing but friendlies by Friday.

Greece, who qualified for the tournament without losing a game, are ranked 15th by FIFA, while Group A rivals Russia and the Czech Republic stand 13th and 27th.

"The first step is always the most important step, and the first step is the Greece match," said Poland captain Kuba Blaszczykowski.

"I believe that with a lot of luck, we can cause some havoc during the tournament. It all depends on how we play in the group stage. Success at that stage will give us a lot of self-belief and it will enable us to go further," added the highly-rated Dortmund midfielder.

Poland go on to face Russia on 12 June, before wrapping up their group matches against the Czechs on 16 June.

Greece meet the Czechs on 12 June and Russia on 16 June.

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