Greece's UEFA EURO 2004™-winning squad flew home to a heroes' welcome in Athens today.
The Greek party, who had been joined by the country's prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, were greeted by thousands of jubilant fans at the Eleftheros Venizelos airport, with huge crowds lining the streets of the capital to pay tribute to coach Otto Rehhagel and his players.
European champions thanks to Angelos Charisteas's 57th-minute goal against Portugal, the fans broke into cheers as the aeroplane that carried the party home from Portugal touched down on the Athens runway.
The Greek national anthem was played at ear-splitting volume as the plane came to a standstill and the players emerged, led by captain Theodoros Zagorakis holding the trophy and German coach Rehhagel, in an event televised live across the nation. A police escort was on hand to take the squad from the airport to a special ceremony at the Panathenium stadium, with hundreds of thousands of supporters applauding the side along the 30km route.
Once at the stadium, the players and coaching staff could celebrate in earnest, having been cheered on by just 15,000 of their millions of supporters in Lisbon. "We feel very satisfied that we gave so much joy to so many people," said goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis. "All three games before the final were against very good opponents. This is the biggest achievement in Greek football but we knew how good we were."
With the start of the Athens Olympic Games a month away, it is a time of unprecedented prestige for Greek sport, and football in particular. "A new page has been turned in Greek football," said midfield player Vassilios Tsiartas. "I hope we can achieve even more in the future. I hope this is not our last success."
However, defender Traianos Dellas, scorer of the extra-time goal against the Czech Republic that took Greece to the final, sounded a note of caution, claiming that the quality of the national team was not an accurate reflection of the state of the game at home. "Unfortunately this does not reflect the state of Greek football," he said. "Greek players deserve more and this success has proved it."
None the less, one thing the Greece players proved beyond all doubt is that, as a united force, they are capable of achieving miracles. "There are no secrets in football," said defender Mihalis Kapsis. "The key was that we were all united - a team. No one put himself above the team, and under the guidance of Rehhagel we made it. We didn't feel any fear because no one expected us to get this far. And I have to be honest, I never thought as a youngster that I would get this far."
Future generations of Greek players will never again be allowed to have such low expectations, but midfield player Stylianos Giannakopoulos was happy to have raised the stakes. "With hard work and a Greek soul, a dream has come true," he said. "With the help of God and hard work, we now hope to qualify for the [FIFA] World Cup and continue our success."
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