16 May 2019
PREVIEW: European Championship Group C Playoff - Greece v Norway
To create their own mythology, these Greek Gods must first overcome a Thor or two.
When Norway play Greece in London on Saturday, the Scandinavians are vying for the right to host Scotland in an historic World Cup qualifier later this year. But their opponents aren’t playing for the same thing.
At the end of a week which saw rugby league gain official government recognition in Norway, the Greek team that will take to New River Stadium this weekend remains - effectively - outlawed in their own country.
A story of internecine power struggles which gained the attention of Al Jazeera last year will take a new twist along the scenic road to qualification for England 2021 in the first ever rugby league meeting between the teams ranked 19 and 20 in the world.
“With all the political stuff that’s been going on here, it could be a huge boost,”
Greek Rugby League Association president George Stilianos said from Athens.
“Maybe this will force their hand. ‘Hey, Greek government, are you going to let these guys play or not?’. Off the field, this has huge significance…”
Basically, one governing body for the sport is recognised within Greece while another is sanctioned by the Rugby League International Federation. As a result, the GRLA - who are fielding this week’s team - have been playing games in the middle of the night at secret venues to evade the authorities.
The mess threatens to overshadow the many engaging yarns on both sides of halfway when Saturday’s match, being played as a double-bill with an English League 1 championship game between London Skolars and Doncaster, kicks off.
For Norway, Casey Diggs is a former American college footballer, Bendik Kalvik a track-and-field star, Sonny Mellor an indigenous Australian born with only half his left arm.
In the Greek side, Thedoris Nianiakis is a green beret paratrooper, Stefanos Bastos could easily be playing for Doncaster as the first ever Greek to sign a professional contact - while Robeet Taliatu would be playing for Skolars against him if he wasn't representing his country.
Norway’s ambassador to the UK, Wegger Strommen, will be guest of honour - things are looking particularly rosy for the country ranked 20 in the world, according to long-serving player Kim Andre Seglem.
“Everyone in Norway knows rugby is played In England, France, Scotland, Norway …. it’s kind of a big deal,” he said of the possible next step towards RLWC qualification, “It was a pretty big deal when we went over to played the Ireland domestic rep side a few weeks ago.
There’s a deal with a news broadcaster in Norway which will make the game available to 40 per cent of Norway’s population. That’s something the RLIF and the RLEF worked really hard on.
You see the big newspapers jumping on the back of Norway now and it’s really creating some momentum that we hope we can turn into domestic growth.”
The Greeks can only dream of the imprimatur conferred by the presence of their ambassador.
“We’ve tried not to speak about it in front of the players,” says Stilianos. “We’ve said ‘Norway’s all we’re thinking about’.
I’ve spoken to the RLEF, I’ve said ‘can we have until June to find a solution?’. If we don’t, we’ll just have to play it in the UK which we don’t want to do.
As Kim said,
Scotland could be a huge drawcard. I’m not exaggerating, we could get 3000, 4000 to that game in Athens if we’re allowed to have it, if we can freely advertise it, have a decent stadium.
Any spotlight we can get shined on this would help our cause. There’s elections coming up in October in Greece so that could also be an advantage for us.
I’m a very optimistic person but I’m not confident on this because it’s been going for four years now.”
Qualifying for the World Cup itself would bring the issue to a flashpoint and could land the rival groups back in court, where the GRLA have already fought off attempts to stop them playing overseas as well as at home.
But all the quirky lines about Greek tragedies are on hold for now. To create their own mythology, these Greek Gods must first overcome a Thor or two.