WARSAW, Poland, June 8 – Poland were preparing to kick off Euro 2012 on home soil, with opponents Greece seeking a morale-boosting win to lift a beleaguered nation hit by political turmoil and crippling financial woes.
Both teams trained at the National Stadium in Warsaw, a day ahead of the curtain-raiser for the 16-team showpiece, as excitement builds across the country — and in neighbouring co-hosts Ukraine — for the start of the tournament.
The kick-off is keenly anticipated not just for the football, with world champions Spain looking to the retain the crown they won four years ago and beaten 2008 finalists Germany seeking revenge.
The tournament is also the first behind the former Iron Curtain and a gamble by European football’s governing body UEFA to develop the game beyond its traditional heartlands.
Franciszek Smuda’s Poles are seeking to emulate the golden generation of the 1970s and 1980s and are relishing playing in front of fanatical home crowds.
“The atmosphere just keeps getting better and better,” he told a news conference at the 50,000-seat stadium. “On our way to and from training, countless numbers of people are wishing us well on the streets. It’s great.
“I hope that kind of atmosphere will remain right through to the end of the tournament. We can be proud of that.”
Greece for their part want to prove that their Euro 2004 victory was no fluke — and give their cash-strapped compatriots something to smile about.
Captain Giorgios Karagounis said: “We want to give joy to the Greeks. We will do our best, without stress and pressure, and hopefully bring back beautiful memories.”
Greece’s blend of age and youth could be the key to success at Euro 2012, veteran Nikos Liberopoulos says, though they are not underestimating co-hosts Poland as they brace for the tournament’s opening match.
“I’m blessed to find myself in such a tournament at the age of 37,” the centre forward told reporters ahead of a match-eve training session at Warsaw’s National Stadium, where Poland and Greece kick off the European championship on Friday.
“Our fusion of new, young players with enthusiasm and zest, and older players with experience, is ideal,” he said.
The average age of the squad is 27, with its young guns just boys when Liberopoulos made his international debut, and teenagers when Greece were shock winners of Euro 2004 against hosts Portugal.
Greece are keenly aware that they rained on the parade at the opening match of that tournament, beating Portugal.
They hope to repeat the feat against Poland, saying it could be a launching pad.
“Every first match is difficult. But as our manager says, if you can’t win the game, you must not lose it. For me, a good debut would be to win,” said midfielder Giorgios Karagounis, 35, who scored the first goal of Euro 2004.
“But it’s really difficult to play against hosts. This is an away game for us. I believe it’s going to be a very difficult game. But as was the case eight years ago, we want to leave the pitch victorious,” he added.
After Poland, Greece face the Czech Republic in the southwestern city of Wroclaw on June 12, and Russia in Warsaw on June 16.
“In such a tournament, every game is like a final. Since we only have a few games to play in the group, no mistakes are allowed,” said Karagounis.
Liberopolous underlined the importance of home advantage for the Poles.
“We’re going to be have 50,000 Poland supporters who want their team to win. They have to win. The only thing we must do is not be an easy target for them,” he said.
Greece are aiming to give their hard-pressed compatriots back home a rare moment of cheer at Euro 2012.
“We’re here to do something very concrete. To give 100%. To enjoy our participation and to give joy to the people back home,” said Karagounis.
Their Portuguese manager Fernando Santos, in charge since 2010, echoed that.
“At every match, I want my players to be clear that they gave 100% and be proud that they represent Greece,” he said.
“We fully respect Poland. They’re a strong team and well organised.”
“We know there are three outcomes, win, draw or lose. We will fight to win. We believe in ourselves,” he added.
“We want to to give the maximum joy to people back home. We’ll fight with passion and zest.”
“No one feels more Greek than me right now. Ny will, my decisiveness and all my being is with Greece.”