They needed to be as strong as Hercules. Strength to perform not twelve, but one task. They needed to have the courage of Perseus. Courage to fight not mythical characters, but real men. They knew they were weak. They had to make sure that the arrows did not find their Achilles heel.
And just like the 300 at Thermopylae, no one gave them a chance.
Greece went into their final group game at Euro 2012 knowing that only a win would do. But they were up against it. Up against Russia who, just like Xerxes’s Persia had looked all conquering and mighty. The Russians were firm favourites. Only an upset would see Greece through to the quarter finals. An upset that never looked likely to be on the cards.
Just 90 minutes stood between them and fate.
The Greeks had so far survived somewhat. Unlike Alexander the Great, they had lost a battle. They had succumbed to the Czech Republic in their previous game. That defeat had cast doubt as to their ability to move on. It had wiped out the good work done on the first day against Poland. Against Poland, they had battled bravely despite suffering casualties. Avraam Papadopolous suffering an injury. Sokratis Papasthapolous had seen red. But somehow, they had fought to avoid defeat. They even let it slip away, their captain, Giorgos Karagounis missing from the penalty spot. That miss was one of the reasons they were being written off.
However, just like King Leonidas, Karagounis led them bravely against the Russians. His redemption would come. He scored the goal that at the end of 90 minutes ensured that they were through to the last eight. But just like Leonidas, his bravery would lead to sacrifice. He was wrongly booked for simulation. This means that he will miss the quarters.
It was not poetic. But it was a performance Homer would have been proud to write about. They have defied the odds. They formed a phalanx around their goal. The youngster Kyriakos Papadopolous ensured that the Russians would not break through. And break through they didn’t. Compact and reactive. Always looking dangerous on the counter attack. They did it for 90 minutes. They did it against whatever was thrown at them. Roman Pavluychenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak. It did not matter. The phalanx held their ground.
The victory was sweet. These are different times in Greece now. It is not that period that was defined by antiquity, with thinkers such as Socrates and Aristotle. It is a period in their history that will be defined by austerity, with thinkers trying to find a way out of this debt. But even in this troubling times, the national team could at least afford to give a nation hope and unbridled joy.
And unlike the 300, who suffered death in victory, these heroes will live to fight another day.