I arrived in the Greek city of Thessaloniki on Friday, ready to experience my first 'home' match of my adventure - Greece vs South Korea.
Thessaloniki is a beautiful port city in the northern Macedonia region of the country. What I found there, however, was surprising - eventually settling on a bar in Aristotelous Square, I immediately began to question the viability of the trip.
Had I deluded myself into thinking this crowd round the big screen culture exists beyond our shores? Why was this establishment, and the many others I had passed, only half full? Why is no one wearing national team colours? And why the hell is that fella casually laughing immediately after South Korea score from a routine set piece?
I sat pondering these questions over a lonely beer during a disappointing first half, seemingly urging Greece on more than the Greeks were themselves in the vain hope an equaliser would kick some life into the semi-interested observers.
This was difficult to relate to. IÃ¢ÂÂd prepared myself for a culture shock and I was eager to see things from a different perspective, but I was expecting deafening chanting and perhaps effigy-burning rather than general apathy. Alas, there was an exception. To my left sat a young man who was, in commentator clichÃÂ© speak, Ã¢ÂÂkicking and heading every ballÃ¢ÂÂ, clearly frustrated with the total lack of imagination from his beloved Greek side.
To my relief, Kostas Champeropoulos, the least Greek looking guy in the bar with probably the most Greek name, spoke near perfect English, and was more than happy for me to join him and his friend George for the second half.
So what was behind the lack of blue-and-white draped souls shouting and screaming in futility at the numerous television screens around town? Ã¢ÂÂIn Greece I think it is a great shame,Ã¢ÂÂ said Kostas. Ã¢ÂÂThe fans and the media, they get very excited about clubs but not for the national team.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂI saw EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs last game at Wembley against Mexico,Ã¢ÂÂ said George. Ã¢ÂÂAnd the whole stadium was white. Sadly it is not the same in Greece.Ã¢ÂÂ So there you have it, England are actually revered for something - wearing colours.
But, there was more: Ã¢ÂÂEngland are my favourite national team.Ã¢ÂÂ he continued, Kostas nodding in agreement. And there was further still: Ã¢ÂÂI say they are going to win the World Cup.Ã¢ÂÂ Kostas stopped short of going along with this (he seemed the more sensible one), but they both seemed to harbour something of an inexplicable admiration for the Three Lions. Kostas insisted that although Greece coach Otto Rehhagel had retained hero status for the teamÃ¢ÂÂs exploits in Portugal six years ago, he was not untouchable. Ã¢ÂÂThis team he has picked today, it is too slow,Ã¢ÂÂ he complained. Ã¢ÂÂThey are playing too many long balls and he picks too many Ã¢ÂÂfavouritesÃ¢ÂÂ regardless of form.
Ã¢ÂÂAnd IÃ¢ÂÂm not happy with this half time substitution. He has taken off Karagounis, who is old, and replaced him with Patsatzoglou who is even older. We have better faster younger players on the bench.Ã¢ÂÂ And just like magic, Loukas Vyntra is robbed of possession in the final third and Park Ji-Sung races past their entire backline with ease and fires home. Lack of pace indeed.
Kostas, ever the Greek, remained philosophical upon the final whistle. Ã¢ÂÂMiracles can happen,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂIf we beat Nigeria, then you never know against Argentina. Maybe Maradona rests some players.Ã¢ÂÂ
KostasÃ¢ÂÂ faith in the miracle, I like to imagine, is a legacy from Euro 2004. Perhaps weÃ¢ÂÂd all be a little less keen to write off our chances following one bad performance had we won a tournament at 150/1.
Truly, I canÃ¢ÂÂt speak highly enough of my two Greek friends - aside from paying for my beer and showing me to the cab rank, they clearly knew their football and gave me a real education in the Greek game. Turns out everyone from outside Athens hates Athens because their clubs - Panathinaikos, Olympiakos and AEK - get favourable refereeing decisions and buy trophies, with smaller clubs unable to compete.
DoesnÃ¢ÂÂt that sound familiar?
PART ONE: Watching the Cup with the Europeans