Alkis Panagoulias, with his stout Greek-American heart, coached underdogs.
He was in charge of the Greek national team in the 1994 World Cup that did not score or even tie a match and he coached the American national team in 1985 that could not qualify for the World Cup.
Now Alkis will miss the next big opportunity for glory as the surprising Greeks take on Germany Friday in the quarterfinals of the European soccer tournament.
Panagoulias died Tuesday in his adopted home of Washington, D.C., at the age of 79. He was totally at home in both cultures, gloried in American progress in world soccer, reveled in the Greek championship in the 2004 Euros, shortly before they were host to the Olympics, where he worked at the soccer tournament.
The Greek enclave of Astoria, in my home borough of Queens, will surely be buzzing Friday for the match that has obvious connections to the financial crisis of Europe.
I’ve seen that neighborhood buzz before. In 1993 Alkis was sighted making a flying visit to a favorite taverna in Astoria, and people came flocking just to see him – Panagoulias is here! Panagoulias is here! -- and wish him luck. Greece would up losing all three matches against Nigeria, Bulgaria and Argentina, yielding 10 goals without scoring a single goal.
His other World Cup fiasco came in 1985 when he was in charge of an American national team that played in the ruins of the North American Soccer League. Needing only a draw at home to advance to the final round of qualifying, the U.S. played Costa Rica in Torrance, Calif. Before game time, a band of several thousand Costa Ricans came marching into the stadium, honking horns and chanting.
After the U.S. lost, 1-0, the heartbroken players retreated to the scungy little locker room.
''When are we ever going to play a home game?'' asked Gregg Thompson, a young defender from Minnesota.
Alkis’ blunt response was: ''Never.''
Things have gotten better for both nations Panagoulias coached. At the moment, the Greeks are the personification of the question Butch Cassidy asked the Sundance Kid: “Who are these people?”
With so many glamour teams in the Euros – current powers like Spain and Germany, teams with aura like Italy, France and England – Greece just keeps coming. It rallied for a 1-1 draw against Poland, lost to the Czech Republic, 2-1, and shocked Russia with a goal in the second minute of injury time in the first half and held on for a 1-0 victory.
They play with passion and defense. Now they have been discovered. All of Europe is savoring the obvious implications of Greece playing Germany with the backdrop of the economic turmoil in the European Union. Make your own jokes.
Going into the knockout round, Germany is the ascendant team in this tournament and Greece is the underdog. Alkis’ funeral is Friday at a Greek Orthodox church in Falls Church, Va., at 11 a.m. – leaving plenty of time for mourners to go root for his homeland.
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