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Euro 2004 Football Title Gives Greece Pre-Olympic Confidence Boost - 2004-07-07

Greeks are hoping that their football team's stunning conquest of the European football championship earlier this week has quashed doubts about their ability to stage the Olympic Games next month. The surprise victory has not only made Greeks explode with joy and pride. It has also boosted their self-confidence in the face of international criticism that construction delays and security lapses threaten the games' success.

Four million of Greece's nearly 11 million people took to the streets Sunday night after their football team defeated Portugal 1-0 in the European Cup final in Lisbon. Cities and villages alike were bathed in blue and white, the national colors. It was the first time Greece had ever won a major international tournament, and the triumph came just as the nation is scrambling desperately to have everything ready in time for the August 13 Olympic Games opening ceremony.

The unsung Greek team not only defeated host team Portugal. It had earlier eliminated defending European champion France and ousted the stylish side from the Czech Republic. The Greek news media say their team's success is due to qualities not usually associated with the country, such as hard work, discipline and tight organization, instilled over the past two and a half years by German coach Otto Rehhagel.

Spyros, an Athens taxi driver, does not care that the Greek team has been criticized for practicing the black art of defensive strangulation until its opponent surrenders. As far as he is concerned, it is the best team in the world.

"The best team, yeah, I think the best," he said.

Spyros, like millions of other Greeks, sees the team as providing a new image of Greece: a nation that is united, devoted to teamwork, not afraid of adversity, in other words, a winner.

That is also the message coming from the Olympic Organizing Committee, which has tried hard to combat Greece's reputation as unruly and disorganized. The Committee, in a statement, hailed the football team as a role-model for the nation, a tightly-knit squad without stars or prima donnas in which getting results is the only thing that matters.

Athens boutique owner Maria Kalomenidou says the country's success in football shows that Greece can have everything ready for the Olympics.

"We proved we can deliver," she said.

The nationwide high that the football win has brought about comes as Greek taxpayers are beginning to grumble about huge Olympic bills and security officials are facing non-stop pressure to satisfy international concerns that the games will be safe. Olympic organizers are hoping that the football fervor will now spill over into enthusiasm for the games themselves.

Ticket sales have been sluggish, and the frantic pace of finishing Olympic facilities and the transportation infrastructure needed for the games have made many Athenians see the upcoming Olympiad as a headache rather than the long-sought return of the games to the nation which gave them birth.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who jumped up and down in the stands in Lisbon after Greece scored its winning goal over Portugal, says he is confident that his country's football success will unleash a newfound Olympic spirit.

"This great summer for Greece continues next month, when the Olympic Games begin in Athens, and they will be both successful and secure," said Mr. Karamanlis.

Mr. Karamanlis, too, says the football team taught Greeks that when they are united and have self-confidence, they can achieve anything they want to.

Whether that can-do spirit can be carried over to the Olympic effort is now the big question. If Greece manages to have everything ready on time and stages a successful Olympics, that could inspire other small and untested countries to try out of the privilege of hosting the games. If it does not, the Olympic movement may decide to limit the games to cities that already have the necessary infrastructure to host the world's major sporting event.