The Greek way of rising in stature

FEW heroic deeds in sports have risen to such heights, taken such a fantasy route as Greece's triumph in the European football championship.

FEW heroic deeds in sports have risen to such heights, taken such a fantasy route as Greece's triumph in the European football championship.

Not having won a match in the history of the championship until the Portugal edition, for the Greeks, who started the tournament as rank outsiders this was an incredible finale, considering Europe is home to a few superpowers in the game, former World champions at that.

As a student in Athens said: "It is like a dream. A dream from which we do not want to wake up".

If there is one thing that the Greek footballers under the tutelage of the shrewd German coach Otto Rehhagel have proved is this — nothing is impossible in sports.

The football success was a much-needed shot in the arm for Greek pride ahead of the Olympic Games, an event already dogged by negative publicity, security worries and escalating costs. That apart this was a football story which draws so much from a common sense approach to the game where it is not the stars that are required as much as efficient legs with specific tasks.

The 65-year-old German knew when he came to Athens that he had taken an enormous risk, for small nations often ask for the impossible. He was disillusioned in Germany, where he was hounded out of his job at Bayern Munich on the eve of the 1996 UEFA Cup final. But no one doubted his outstanding capabilities.

In Rehhagel's efforts and the way Greek football transformed in his hands, there is a lesson for countries like India, on which the Asian Football Confederation has high hopes of a football power in the making.

The German did not ask for stars but fed the Greeks on the effective diet of playing defensively and then counter-attacking. In short, he worked on the strength of the team, did not seek the frills of a genius but a concerted approach that smothers the rival attack while leaving room for the surprise punch.

Greece's success should work as an inspiration to a host of other aspiring countries wanting to make a mark in the sport.

If there is one thing Indian football can immediately draw from the Greek experience it is to give the Coach the freedom to chart his course for the country's footballers.

India has had a host of foreign coaches down the years, right from the time when the country had a significant place in the Asian continent. But at best each had to contend himself with limited headway.

None had a free hand nor the satisfaction of working to a set plan. Often their work clashed with the domestic calendar, the never-ending season of tournaments and leagues, all of which left a player sapped of all energy.

Then again soccer in India has never been nurtured on scientific lines, or else we would not be watching, what AFC experts would say, "broomstick legged players", the kind who can be a liability on a football field.

There has to be an attitudinal change, a sense of self-belief to make a fresh beginning in building Indian football. And that cannot come about overnight, but over a period of sustained exposure to best quality competition.

Just as one win here or there should not call for euphoric celebration, a loss against superior teams should not be inferred as a disaster. Restraint, patience and a professional approach are needed.

It is a good sign that the All India Football Federation has decided on modifying the national league, the key competition that has enabled countries like Japan, Korea and China to rise in stature.

The format is being modified to enable more states to field their teams, even while ensuring that the already performing teams are not short of encouragement.

Quality comes from quantity and in a country of a billion people, this still has much validity.

What the national body should possibly do is also to strengthen the youth base simultaneously, bringing it under the total charge of the National Coach backed by scientific inputs. Quality control begins at that stage.

Greece's success has been a dream come true, but the path to glory was not paved by luck alone, but pluck and loads of self-belief, laced with the doggedness of a coach, who believes mental strength is as important as physical power in a game of football.