- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

In the year of the Athens Games, the Greek soccer team already has performed an Olympian feat. Previously winless at international tournaments, Greece has reached the final of the European Championship, where it will meet host Portugal tomorrow in Lisbon.

This is no fluke for the 80-1 underdogs. On the way to the final, Greece used hard work, discipline and defensive soccer to beat Portugal, defending champion France and the undefeated Czech Republic. The Greeks will now attempt to repeat the tournament’s opening match, a stunning 2-1 defeat of Portugal.

The Portuguese, led by Luis Figo, may have stumbled at the beginning of Euro 2004 but they made up for it with vital wins over Spain, England and a star-studded Dutch team.

A place in the final for Portugal is sweet redemption after its early exit from the 2002 World Cup following an embarrassing 3-2 loss to the United States. Not since the explorer Vasco da Gama circled the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 have the Portuguese had so much to cheer about.

The team’s Brazilian coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari — a Gene Hackman look-alike — is seeking to become the first coach to win a World Cup and European Championship with two different teams. He led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title. Meantime, Greece’s 65-year-old coach, Otto Rehhagel, a native of Germany, will also attempt to make history. No nation with a foreign coach has won the European Championship or the World Cup.

The traditional soccer powers of Europe — Germany, Italy, France, England, Holland and Spain — have all gone home, leaving Portugal and Greece to fight over the spoils, possibly signaling a new alignment of soccer dominance in Europe.

Facts about the final:

• Portugal stars Figo, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa will retire from the team after the game. The trio were part of Portugal’s “golden boys”, the team that won the FIFA Youth World Cup in 1991.

• Portugal has used all its field players in the tournament. Only the two backup goalies have not been used.

• The only country to win the title after losing its first game was Holland in 1988.

• The Greek team is the third oldest at Euro 2004. Only France and Latvia had a higher average age.

• Going into the finals Portugal was 13-2 favorites behind France and Italy. The odds that Greece would win was 80-1.

• This is the first final in 40 years staged by two first-time finalists.

• Greek star Giorgios Karagounis is suspended after receiving a yellow card in the semifinals.

MLS notes — The Sports Business Journal reported the San Jose Earthquakes and Kansas City Wizards will be moving next season. San Jose GM Alexi Lalas confirmed there have been relocation talks, but Wizards officials said their team was staying put.

MLS is planning to add a Hispanic-based team in Los Angeles and another club in either Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia or Salt Lake City for the 2005 season. The league hopes to add two more teams in 2006 to bring the total to 14. Meanwhile, it was confirmed this week that the town of Harrison, N.J., will build a $130million soccer stadium for the MetroStars for the 2006 season.

Olympics — The U.S. Women’s Olympic team plays Canada tonight in Nashville, Tenn. Veteran striker Mia Hamm, who has five goals and nine assists in 12 games this year, is looking for her unprecedented 150th goal.

Eric the Red — Former French star Eric Cantona, who won five championships in England playing for Leeds and Manchester United, revealed this week he was rooting for England at Euro 2004.

“I am French but I was supporting England,” Cantona told a Portuguese TV station. “I was sad Portugal won — for me that should have been the final.”

Cantona still nurses a grudge. He was kicked off the French team after scoring 19 goals in 45 games and found his fame in England, where he was once suspended for karate-kicking an abusive fan.

“It’s my country but I don’t want to know about France — I was born there but I feel English. [The French] are arrogant and selfish and always need people to tell them they are the best.”

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