Greece could be forgiven for thinking they have home advantage when they take on Korea Republic in their 2010 FIFA World Cup South AfricaÃ¢â€žÂ¢ opener on Saturday.
The reason? Port Elizabeth boasts a thriving Greek community, which numbers around 1,000 proud Hellenic ex-pats including Archie Charalambous, venue manager of this Eastern Cape city’s brand new Nelson Mandela stadium. Greeks first arrived in Port Elizabeth around 100 years ago, as sea merchants,” Charalambous told AFP as he oversaw the finishing touches to the ground that will play host to eight FIFA World Cup matches in all.
The former university lecturer and ardent football fan added: “We now number 300 families in Port Elizabeth. I’m first generation Greek, my parents were born in Cyprus.” Charalambous recently stood down as chairman of the Greek community association in Port Elizabeth to devote himself to readying the 45,000 capacity venue with a view over the Indian Ocean for FIFA World Cup action.
“You don’t need to ask me who I want to win on Saturday,” he smiled, before asserting: “The stadium is ready, we’re just applying the finishing touches.
“The last few days are always a little nervy, but everything has gone well. We’re expecting 40,000 or so for Greece v South Korea – we had that size of crowd for the friendly between South Africa and Japan.”
Barely one kilometre behind the stadium Father Georges Vakonakis was rubbing his hands in anticipation at watching the UEFA EURO 2004 champions in person. Vakonakis presides over a picture postcard white-walled and green slate roofed Greek Orthodox church built on top of a hill in 1958 to serve the Greek community.
He arrived in Port Elizabeth six years ago after a 14 year spell in Cameroon. The priest, his grey hair tied back in a ponytail, is, like Charalambous, itching for Greece to open their campaign with three points.
“I’ll be there on Saturday wearing the Greek colours. I’m so excited and never believed I’d be watching Greece play in the World Cup in Port Elizabeth.
“I’ll offer them a prayer but I don’t think the team will come and visit my church – Otto Rehhagel is too strict! There are around 7,000 Greek fans due to attend the game.”