Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Greek heroes return home

EURO 2004 CHAMPIONS More than 100,000 people in and around Panathenian stadium sang the national anthem and chanted `God is German' in honor of the team's coach Otto Rehhagel

AP , ATHENS, GREECE

Greek fans wave national flags at the team's official homecoming ceremony in the Panathinaikon stadium in central Athens, Monday. Greece upset Portugal 1-0 to win the Euro 2004 hampionship in Lisbon on Sunday.

PHOTO: EPA

Europe's new soccer champions returned to a heroes' welcome Monday as hundreds of thousands of partying fans lined the streets to greet them, and Greece's spirits soared five weeks before the Aug. 13-29 Olympics.

Music to "Zorba the Greek" blared out and fireworks exploded as the players were showered with honors at the all-marble Panathenian stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

Supporters -- still hoarse from wild night-long celebrations -- roared "Greece, Greece" and "Bring on Brazil'' as the shock European Championship winners arrived.

"This is a great moment of joy," said Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis, who had traveled to Lisbon to watch Greece beat Portugal 1-0 in Sunday's final. "I am sure this [feeling] will peak at the Olympic Games."

More than 100,000 people in and around the stadium sang the national anthem and chanted "God is German" to honor coach Otto Rehhagel, who has been offered Greek citizenship.

A beaming Rehhagel sat holding the cup at the front of a bus which brought the team from the airport. Thousands of motorcycles blaring their horns followed the bus on its 35km route as it plowed through a sea of flares and Greek flags.

Police, gearing up for massive Olympic security next month, occasionally appeared to lose their grip on the ecstatic crowds.

National colors of blue and white were draped over the city, over balcony rails, flapping out car windows, painted onto faces, tied around pet dogs and made into hats, T-shirts, champagne labels and cake decorations.

Angelos Charisteas' winning header against Portugal was shown all day on giant outdoor television screens -- the moment that sealed Greece's remarkable three-week run past the hosts, Russia, Spain, France and the Czech Republic.

Each victory was followed by an ever-growing street celebration in Athens, other Greece cities and in Greek communities from New York to Melbourne, Australia. Monday's party was the biggest.

"We never thought we could make you so happy. Thank you," Greece captain Theodoros Zagorakis, named player of the tournament, told the welcoming crowd.

The 65-year-old Rehhagel, now sought by his native Germany before it hosts the 2006 World Cup finals, is credited with transforming a Greek side which has no household names in the sport and a domestic league plagued by fan violence and financial crisis.

"It's not a dream. The cup is in Athens," said Rehhagel, clutching a stack of trophies. "The Greeks can be proud of their team, not just for the games they played but because they became the best ambassadors for the Olympics."

Success at Euro 2004 comes as a welcome distraction for Athenians who have been harrowed by months of road closures and other late preparations for the Olympics.

Athens newspapers compared the players to winners of the ancient Olympic Games and rued the fact there were no walls around Athens to tear down in the traditional greeting for returning champions.

"We should tear down the walls, our boys are returning home as champions of Europe," the Athens daily Ethnos said in a banner headline, while the sports daily SporTime wrote "God please give us more tears so we can keep crying from happiness."

But it was a banner hanging from a suburban Athens street that most defined the Greek mood.

It read: "If this is a dream, then I never want to wake up."

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