Whilst it’s a well known fact that the Ancient Greeks were the first masters of tragedy and comedy, it’s a debate in literary circles whether they can truly be credited with getting to grips with the idea of the hybrid genre of tragicomedy. The argument may step up a gear tonight, after Greece’s modern footballers suggested that the tradition was flowing through the blood.
The defending champs delivered an opening performance that was so dreadful that it went beyond bad, came all the way around again to good, then soared to hilarious. The Greek display had the appearance of being choreographed, so perfect was its execution of comic timing during passages of despairingly poor play.
Sweden looked on dumbfounded, as the Greeks gained possession in their own half, and preceded to pass it amongst themselves aimlessly in the fashion of West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, when the two sides fixed the result in order to both qualify for the next phase. The Swedish crowd whistled with fury as time after time, the Greeks just walked around with the ball showing no interest whatsoever in participating in a football match.
Maybe Greece have grown so fond of their tag of champion spoilers that, aware they have no chance of producing a repeat, they’ve come here to parody the concept. Perhaps their three games at Euro 2008 will soon be arriving on a stage, entitled Greece Are Dull: The Musical. In its way it was enormously entertaining, and the way in which Greece seemed to deliberately play as awfully as possible definitely contained a certain artistry, comparable, say, with Les Dawson’s piano playing, or Tommy Cooper’s magician’s act.
Greece’s apparent preference for the performing arts didn’t end there either, their number also included a classic hero-villain in centre back Sotiris Kyrgiakos, who first tried to combine with a team mate to make a human vice in which to crush Freddie Ljungberg, then spent the rest of the match attempting to render redundant as many of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s body parts that he could gain access to.
Before the curtain came down, it was time for the final act; a stunningly executed piece of slapstick involving a high ball, a floundering custodian facing his own goal, and four pairs of legs succeeding more in kicking each other than the ball. Eventually the ball appeared to find its own way into the corner of the net, and the show was over to a thoroughly merited standing ovation. Alright, maybe the standing ovation was from the magnificent Swedish fans for their players, but in my head they were all cheering our Greek entertainers.
ITV’s Steve Rider proved to have his finger as far from a football fan’s pulse as possible by declaring “At least the first goal made it worth watching”. The first Swedish goal, a decent strike from Ibrahimovic, scored whilst the defenders were presumably busy with a costume change, represented the intermission drink or ice cream, a pleasant enough diversion, but soon forgotten again in a long evening of cultural indulgence.
Before the Greeks took the stage, Spain had earlier made yet another good start to a tournament, setting up perfectly their usual scenario of false dawns and miserable failure. If the inevitable crash to earth is as spectacular as the lift-off though, it should be worth watching, as Spain gave pretty much a complete performance, ruthlessly exposing Russian defensive hesitancy with forwards oozing pace and class, then giving a masterclass in how to complete a victory by snuffing out any thoughts of Russian resistance in the second half with perfect possession retention.
It will all end in tears though, as we know, and it was pleasantly surprising to see the BBC pundits not falling into the trap of bestowing upon Spain the status of genuine contenders. A studio full of once bitten pundits stonewalled the issue beautifully, heaping praise on Spain’s display, but remaining transparently non-committal on the issue of their further progress. Sensible boys.
Spain’s day for sorrow is to come later though, tonight the tears belong to Greece. Whether they are tears induced by sadness or laughter depends on your position, but one thing is certain: The show must go on.