By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – “Some Greek fans thought it was a moral victory,” wrote N.Y. Times sports writer George Vecsey of the soccer game on Wednesday between the U.S. and Greek women’s teams.
And it can convincingly be argued that a moral victory is what was sorely needed in the face of the numerous accusations of doping that accompanied the return of the Olympics to their native land.
In the event that marked the unofficial opening of the 2004 Games, seven of the eleven starting players on the team were Greek-Americans; and though they didn’t score a goal, reporters, players and coaches noted the significance of their ability to keep the U.S. to only three.
Newsday pointed out that “the Americans…failed to blow away the competition as was expected,” and USA Today noted “the U.S. women…did not overwhelm the Greeks.” Speaking of the “women with Greek blood in their veins,” the New York Daily News acknowledged their efforts with “the Americans stopped the U.S. often enough to make the fans happy.”
Greek defender Konstantina Katsaiti admitted “our aim was not to win the game or even manage a draw…,” but Kalliopi (Beba) Stratakis of Elmont, N.Y., a former student of Southern Connecticut State University who was named to the All-American, All-New England, and Northeast 10 First Teams in 2000 and is a member of the Ergotelis Soccer Club in Greece, exuded more confidence when she said, “I thought it was going to be a lot harder, that I’d be blown away by Abby Wambach. I can’t believe how easily she fell.”
“We knew Greece was a big-time underdog,” said Rudy Meredith, Eleni Benson’s coach at Yale. “But defensively they did better score-wise [than expected].” Meredith had thought the U.S. would score as many as five or six goals against the Greek team.
He watched his defensive center, the “first Olympian I’ve ever coached,” on television and told Greek News “she played pretty well and didn’t look intimidated by the American team….”
“I’ve seen Eleni develop her soccer skills over the last five or six years since watching her play with the Oakwood Soccer Club team in Glastonbury, [Conn.]. When I was scouting for players for Yale and learned she had a 1500 SAT score, I especially became interested in her because Yale players must also be strong academically.”
Eleni played for Yale for two years before taking this last year off to practice with the Greek team. Part of her experience included spending winter recess in 2002-03 training with the Greek team in Europe, where she saw a “higher level of competition.”
According to Meredith, she thought the training of this past year, wasn’t as difficult as it is in the U.S. and that one year was too brief a period of time to create a unified team.
“It takes time, money and commitment to build a team,” Meredith noted. “And the culture has to change and be more supportive. It must create a competitive league to give the women’s teams opportunities to play against each other.” He thinks it important that the Greek soccer federation, which likely received $4-5 million when the men’s team won the European Cup, use the money to invest in women’s soccer teams and youth programs.
Eleni’s absence this year underscored the positive impact she has on her Yale team.
“Two years ago, we made our first appearance in the NCAA tournament since our program began 25 years ago, and we upset Villanova in the first round. Last year, without Eleni, we didn’t have the defensive combination of size (Eleni is tall) and speed, a rare combination that Eleni brings to the team, and didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Her commitment to the Yale team, where she started every game during her sophomore year, scoring 14 points to place third among her teammates and earn her an All-Ivy honorable mention, was clear from the concern she expressed to her coach about missing the first few practice sessions of its 2004-05 season.
“She was talking about getting off the plane from Greece and coming right back to Yale; but I told her that, considering the year-long commitment she made to play in the Olympic Games, I thought I could overlook her missing two or three days of practice!” Meredith said. “I thought it was commendable for her to leave her friends and, without knowing the language, join the Greek team. I believe the whole experience of playing in the Olympics will help her at Yale.”
As for Eleni, whose understanding of the Greek language developed to the point that she was able to go to the library and read Greek books there, she found the experience to be “an amazing opportunity.”
“I’ve been able to explore my culture and see relatives in Athens that I didn’t have the chance to see when I was growing up,” she told the Yale Daily News.
For Brooklyn-born goalkeeper Maria Yiatrakis, who was reared in the Greek culture, the focus was on soccer. A student at the University of Connecticut until 2003, and a player under the leadership of Coach Len Tsantiris, who led UConn women’s soccer teams to 13 NCAA Division Championships in his 20-year career there, Yatrakis helped her team to a 16-2-1 season and was named Big East Goalkeeper of the Year in 2002. She left her volunteer assistant coaching position at Columbia University to join the Greek national team two years ago.
Head Coach Kevin McCarthy thought Yatrakis, who fended off 23 of 26 shots made by the American team, was “amazing, the player of the match.”
“As the game went on, you could see that the players were being worn down, but Maria remained incredibly strong and combative in urging them on,” he said.
Yatrakis told Vecsey that standing at attention for the Greek national anthem before more than 15,000 fans in Pankritio Stadium (normal crowds for the Greek team are usually about 1,000) was “slightly unbelievable…a really fabulous moment.
“I’ve been watching these (U.S.) players in my childhood,” she added.
But it was the chanting of “Hellas! Hellas!” when the Greek team was down 1-0 and every time the Greeks completed a pass and moved the ball upfield that really gave her chills.
McCarthy doubted, however, that she shared the satisfaction of having kept the U.S. to only three goals.
“Maria is a very competitive player. And there is no way she walked onto the field without thinking they could score goals against the U.S. Perhaps when it’s behind her [although they lost to the U.S. Greece advanced in the tournament], she may think the performance was acceptable; but I know that she’s disappointed the team didn’t do better. She has a work ethic second to none.”
McCarthy is torn because he realizes “she’s going to have opportunities” as a result of her Olympic performance, opportunities that may take her away from Columbia.
In Brooklyn, Sts. Constantine and Helen Board President Jim Tampakis remembered Yatrakis for her commitment to an annual tradition: coming to church on Holy Friday morning at 5:30 and helping to set up the epitafio.
“She lived two blocks from the church, and despite her active sports life while growing up, she always came with her father, a member of the church Board of Trustees. I’ve known him for the last 25-30 years and he pushed and supported his children and kept sports at the same level as education.”