Johnny Ioannidis
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  A Peaceful Little War
by Johnny Ioannidis

I can vaguely remember the day I actually started kicking a ball around. I look to be about 3 years old ..

My earliest memories of soccer take me back about 22 years ago, but aided by an old photograph in one of the family albums, I can vaguely remember the day I actually started kicking a ball around. I look to be about 3 years old in the photo, with my dad and older brother smiling down on me; the three of us decked out in these awful 70s shorts and flip-flops in the backyard of our old house. Every two years between the European Cup and the World Cup, I think about that picture.

It was tough for my generation to get into Soccer. In Canada, every kid wanted to be Wayne Gretzky, fughedaboudit. And even while at that time, my loathing for all things adored by the masses was considerable, I couldn't deny that the man was magic. If you didn't know how to skate, there must have been something wrong with you. It never occurred to anybody that a bunch of immigrants could have children growing up in this arctic enviornment that would want to play anything else.

Sure we watched our Stanley Cups, going haywire everytime the Oilers, Habs, or Flames (that one time!) got to drink bubbly out of that sacred chalice. But when World Cup was on, there was no way my mother was going to watch any soaps. Hockey didn't just take a back seat, it was left on the curb holding a gas can. Dad and Larry would both be glued to the screen, back when there was still a divided Germany, and the Czech Republic had yet to happen. Leave the kids with their Gretzkys and Lemieuxs... who the hell needed a Mike Bossy when you had a Karl-Heinz Rummeniege, or Zico? Schillachi, Maldini, Maradona, Klinsmann, Socrates, Valderrama, the list was endless. Wizards all, they played with the kind of intensity that modern day athletes are generally found wanting.

Soccer, as with all sports, retains the same demographic roll call. The green-as-hell rookie sensation, the prima-donna, uber-confident quarter-century boys, and the wily, diminished, fraction-of-their-former-selves-but-still-full-of-tricks (who were decidely more pre-Madonna than prima-donna) veterans. The coaches that worked them into their grooves were no less colourful, ranging from former national team players to over-salaried hacks. The teams rarely had nicknames, but nevertheless carried with them a character all their own.

Case in point; the Greek national soccer team.

In my undergrad years, I used to hang out with a fairly decent cross-section of ethnicities, but a good chunk of my time was spent with a group of fellow Greek-Canadians. It wasn't as bad as all that; some great polemical discussions would pop out from time to time. Greeks are great debators, and are probably neck and neck with Italians where bullshitting is concerned (for a good idea of what I'm talking about, you should check out "Hellas" by Nicolas Gage [not a typo], the author of the book "Eleni". It's a tremendously incisive analysis of Greek culture and its roots, from antiquity till present day).

One day, the topic of ethnic solidarity came up, namely the question of why the Chinese and Jewish communities prosper on such a higher level than the Greeks. My friend Viv Balatsoukas--one of the smartest, hottest, and most articulate people I know--pretty much nailed that puppy down before it had a chance to degenerate into race-bashing. To quote the woman herself: "it's because the Jews and the Chinese work with their own for a common goal, even if they don't necessarily get along. The Greeks just argue for the sake of arguing.'

Case in point; the Greek national soccer team.

Greece has always had its fair share of success in various sports, particularly the World Basketball Championships, Water Polo, Track and Field, and Weightlifting. So why not soccer? Greece has had a 'First Division' of soccer teams dating back to the turn of the 20th century, and the national team first really came to be noticed at World Cup '94 in the United States, when they sported an undefeated qualifying run (against admittedly lesser teams, but even so).

Prior to this tournament, the one thing both the Canadian and Greek national teams could count on is a great big steaming pile of "so what?" from its supporters. Deservedly so, I think; I remember all too well the 4-4-2 formation we Greeks fronted in World Cup USA '94, losing 4-0 to Argentina, 4-0 to Bulgaria, and 2-0 to Nigeria. Following that debacle, we buried our heads in the sand, stuck to our First Division rivalries, and the state of the national team was never discussed in public again, unless combined with the words "there was one?" or "pfftt..."

Then something miraculous happened. First, we took the English starting bench to the brink of disaster during their qualifying run for World Cup Korea/Japan '02 (it took an injury time strike from David Beckham to salvage the one point they needed to make the trip over here). Then after losing our first two Euro Portugal '04 qualifying matches to the Ukraine and Spain, the boys suddenly began to turn the screws somewhat, and continued on to steamroll through the rest of the qualifiers, riding a 15-game unbeaten streak up until the tournament, and finishing atop mighty Spain in their qualifying group. What kind of comeback malarkey is this? How was it made possible? As I write this, Greece has just beaten the former Euro 2000 champions France, and has guarenteed themselves a finish of no less than fourth place, and it's in no small way directly related to their hiring of German coach Otto Rehhegel.

Over the past ten years or so, the Champions League (that is, the European soccer tournament which involves the top two teams from their respective countries' first division standings) has been as much a bidder's market as a tournament. And with Greek teams such as AEK, Panathanaikos, and Olympiakos all putting in strong showings, it was only a matter of time before Greek players started getting wooed by richer, more prominent teams across Europe. My man Demis Nikolaidis, Greece's top international striker, got snatched up by Atletico Madrid. Stelios Giannakopoulos plays for Bolton in the English Premiership. Hero of the tournament Angelos Charisteas plays for this year's German Cup winners Werder Bremen.

Part of the problem from years past has been a lack of experience playing other European teams, but with eight players in the squad playing outside of Greece, combined with the former stars of Greece's impressive under-21 squad from a couple of years back, this has all been rectified. In addition, the inclusion of this new coach (hailed as 'King Otto' in Greece; he's our Hiddink) has instilled a unity in the team that was not there previously. There have always been Greeks with individual talent, but they could never put aside their First Division prejudices to play as a unit. Otto's changed all that, and indeed, their playing style is nothing like it was in the past. If you've been paying attention, the Greek squad has been playing with a tremendous amount of nerve and discipline. Time was they'd start a match, and before long, one of them would get red-carded for a lousy foul (made out of frustration), and that would be it.

Success as a direct result of teamwork is nothing new. The recent NBA finals between Detroit and LA was a perfect example of how the success rate of sports teams (or the lack thereof) can be proportionately related to their cohesion as a team. The Pistons worked their asses off, and in turn undermined the travails of a few marquee names. Witness the Calgary Flames recent Stanley Cup run. Or Porto and Monaco's magnificent ascent into the Champions League finals. All examples of how the sum total of a team can be so much greater than its individual parts.

Lessons that I hope France, England, and Italy are learning right now. If you've never sat down to watch a soccer game in its entirety, I suggest you do so this weekend. Enjoy the finals. I know I will.

 

"Better speed it up a couple of octaves." --Dirk Diggler

June 29, 2004