Greece Overcomes Its Ancient History, Finally ; the Birthplace of Democracy Has Found the Weight of History a Heavy Burden. as Its Football Team Returns Victorious, Greeks Hope They Can Look Forward to a New Age of Heroes. by Guy Alexander

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Hanging from a lamppost in Athens' central square yesterday was a handmade banner that captured the unreal feeling in the wake of the biggest upset in football. Fluttering in the wind, it bore the words: "If this is a dream, I don't want to wake up."

The country that gave us logic sent a football team to Portugal that summarily dismantled the concept and awoke feelings of passion and pride that have lifted a national psyche battered by the gulf between its ancient achievements and its modern mediocrity.

Once the cradle of civilisation, Greece has been beset by angst at the scale of the task in measuring up to the glories of its ancestors since winning independence from Turkey in 1830. This angst has not been helped by an almost preternatural ability to attract the wrong kind of press whatever it does. It has been endlessly buffeted by criticism of Olympic preparations that owed more to those other Greek inventions, chaos and tragedy.

But now this country of only 11 million inhabitants finally has something to be unequivocally happy about. Six football matches cannot compete with the legacy of a culture that spawned democracy, maths and physics, but taking the trophy at Euro 2004 felt remarkably close to it for anyone with even the tiniest bit of Greek in them.

"I don't feel any different than I did yesterday but hopefully the rest of Greece will," said Antonis Panoutsos, Greece's answer to Des Lynam and the anchorman for television coverage of the tournament. "Last night hopefully demolished the disease of fatalism that paralyses so much of Greek life.

"Greeks always complain that everything is fixed, everything is orchestrated against them, which is convenient because it gives an excuse to do nothing. Why bother, because others will conspire against you. It's a way of saying we didn't really lose, we were robbed."

This collective paranoia was never better illustrated than at this year's Eurovision song contest. The annual outpouring of kitsch pop assumed national importance in Greece this year when Sakis Rouvas, the local pop favourite entered. When a sprightly performance delivered third place, all Greece called foul, chat shows spent hours on Eastern European conspiracy theories to explain Rouvas' loss to Ukraine's diva Ruslana.

"This was the best example of this dogged belief that everything and everyone is against us," Mr Panoutsos said. "No more. When people see Thodoris Zagorakis, a 33-year-old journeyman footballer voted player of the tournament after collecting the trophy then it's time to drop the fatalism. This is a guy who comes from a low- expectations culture and you saw it gradually dawned on him that he could play, really play."

In one memorable quarter-final moment, the Greek captain stopped the ball dead on his foot, then chipped it over his marker before rampaging down the right wing to deliver a pinpoint cross on to the striker's head that led to the winning goal.

"He is a working-class hero and should be an example to all Greeks of what can be achieved," Mr Panoutsos added. "This tournament made heroes of players that surpassed the small expectations people had of them."

Loukas Tsoukalis, a professor of contemporary Greek studies who describes himself as a cynic, who was nonetheless delighted with the result on Sunday, said the euphoria (another Greek word) was inescapable. "Football seems to have become the best form of expressing national identity and certainly the best way of mobilising people in pursuit of a national goal. Greece is a country that evokes strong emotions, it's a place that you either love very much or hate absolutely."

On Sunday night, the feeling was clearly one of love. Pericles' ancient masterpiece, the Acropolis, was bathed in the light of fireworks as modern Greeks celebrated having achieved something for themselves.

And the strength of that feeling reached far beyond the shores of Greece, thanks to the scale of another Greek phenomenon: its diaspora. …