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World Cup '94 : WORLD CUP USA '94 / GROUP D PREVIEW : Modern Greek Heroes : Former U.S. Coach Panagoulias at the Helm of Nation's Rise to Prominence

June 12, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gods must be happy.

It was, after all, the Mount Olympus crowd--Zeus, Hermes, Apollo, that bunch--who inspired the Olympic Games. But only now, so many sunbaked summers later, is there finally a local rooting interest in an off-year international athletics extravaganza.

The Greeks, 2,000 years after they got the world playing, are in America to play in their first World Cup. Don't laugh. They think they have a fighting chance for a second-round berth.

With all due respect to Hellenic prowess, the main ingredient for this year's European-newcomer success story is as much peanut butter as pita bread.

His name is Alketas (Alkis) Panagoulias. He is the national team coach and a legend in Greece, larger than life. He is Poseidon, spanner of the seas, a thoroughly Greek hero who happens also to be an immigrant to the United States, an American citizen for 25 years.

In suburban Vienna, Va., where Panagoulias has lived for a decade, his Greek role has made him a latter-day celebrity: the only American coach in the World Cup, he likes to say. Of course, nobody in any Vienna noticed those obscure years, 1982-85, when Panagoulias coached the U.S. national team, and the American team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

He hasn't changed since. Panagoulias, 60, is an inspirational coach of no-secrets soccer with a simple credo: "Attack from the start."

He likes a simple, fast, aggressive game. To play it, he has assembled a team of believers fervent enough to retake Troy.

"We are in deep waters and we must learn to swim," Panagoulias says. "This is Greek soccer's big chance to get known around the world. Our biggest weapon is our fighting spirit and the burning desire to win. Our weakness is that we often lose our concentration during a match and this may prove disastrous."

In May tune-ups, Greece lost big to Cameroon and England but played to respectable ties against Cup-bound Bolivia and the United States.

"We are doing better with each passing day. The team did better than in the previous friendlies; I expect to be ready when the time of truth comes," Panagoulias said after the U.S. game.

A more telling harbinger of the Greek future might have come last weekend in New York, where new power Colombia walloped Greece, 2-0.

Serious professional soccer is only about one decade old in Greece, and crowds average only about 10,000 for Sunday matches. Still, when Panagoulias was rehired in 1992 to the coaching job he had held from 1973-81, Greece had failed in a dozen consecutive attempts to qualify for the Cup. A 1-1 tie with Russia on May 23, 1993, ended the drought and left Greece giddy.

If Zeus really had been paying attention, Greece wouldn't have to make its debut against superpower Argentina. But Panagoulias has a plan he thinks will get a boost from enthusiastic Greeks and Greek-Americans at first-round games in Boston and Chicago.

Tying the Argentines and beating either Nigeria or Bulgaria, Panagoulias says, should be enough to let Greece slide into the second round as a third-place qualifier.

One thing certain is that Greece will play with passion: "I want your soul fully dedicated to this team," Panagoulias told an early draft of Cup hopefuls.

To carry the flag further than Greece has traveled in soccer, Panagoulias has assembled a team that blends youth and experience.

Greece's greatest hopes ride on the feet of 21-year-old striker phenom Nikos Machlas. What he lacks in experience, Machlas makes up in exuberance and smart positioning, particularly inside the penalty area. He might become the first Greek recruited to play abroad.

Counterpoint to young Machlas is high-scoring 36-year-old Tassos Mitropoulos, the dean of the Greek team, who has played in more than 70 international matches and is nicknamed "Rambo" for his explosive attacks.

Veterans Nikos Tsiantakis, the team's best left-footer, and Panagiotis Tsalouhidis will anchor the midfield and could trouble opposition defenders.

The defense should focus on right back Stratos Apostolakis, who has played nearly 60 international matches and is considered one of the best Greek players in the past decade. The goalkeeper will be another veteran, 35-year-old Antonis Minou, at 6-feet-4 the tallest player on a big team.

"If they do well at the finals they'll be treated as gods," soccer official Alexis Dedes said.

Are you listening, Zeus?

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