Do not misjudge us Greeks and the smile cracking at the corner of our mouths when we put the words “football” and “Czech Republic” in the same sentence. The memories are still too strong, too vivid of that UEFA EURO 2004 semi-final in Porto, on 1 July, of the rollercoaster of emotions during 105 goalless before Traianos Dellas’s silver goal, followed by the Greek team shouting: “It is over, it is over…”
I was watching the Czechs train in Wroclaw today. The players were warming up with a ten-minute handball match and I spotted Tomáš Rosický among them. I instantly remembered that night, eight years ago, when just two minutes into the match, he unleashed a thunderous shot onto the Antonis Nikopolidis’s crossbar. I told you – we Greeks cannot help but remember.
Since then, the Czech Republic have changed considerably, as the generation of Pavel Nedved and friends has reached retirement age. Greece have not lost the basics of a fierce defence and defiant team spirit, but there are lots of new faces.
For instance, Dimitris Salpingidis was not a member of the UEFA EURO 2004 squad, but he is an invaluable element now and always a joy to talk to. One cannot find a more humble person in the Greece team – come to think of it, in the whole of Greek football.
Talking to him yesterday, I asked him how he feels being the man who has scored three ‘big’ goals for Greece: against Ukraine (to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup), against Nigeria (Greece’s first at a World Cup final tournament) and last Friday against Poland. A happy smile settled on his face: “The truth is that I haven’t scored so many goals for the national team, but the fact that I was the one who scored those three important goals, both for the team and for me, makes me really happy. But one of my principles is to play for the whole team and not for the name that appears on my shirt.”
This last quote stuck with me. Somehow it explained the secret of this squad’s continuity and why, over the years and throughout all the changes in players and coaches, their spirit remains intact. They are sure to need it when they take on the Czechs on Tuesday.