First off, an acknowledgement to former ESPN Greece blogger George Tsitsonis, who did a fine job covering previous major tournaments for the website, bringing with him an insight and style that I can only hope to replicate in some way this summer. For the future, George, I sincerely wish you all the best.
Secondly, a very big geia sas to all my fellow Greece fans out there! This being an English-language website, many of you reading this may also be first generation residents of your respective countries. Born and raised in Sydney to parents who migrated from their homeland at a very young age, football has been one of the strongest – if not the strongest – links to my ancestral home outside of my family.
Now, this wouldn’t be a blog on Greek football without at least a reference to Euro 2004, so let’s get that out of the way. In many respects that miraculous victory has brought as much vitriol as praise given the supposed ‘anti-football’ it endorsed. What detractors will never understand is that for many of us living outside of Greece, it was an occasion in which the diaspora was brought together in communities all over the world in a manner arguably never seen by anyone of my generation: it was a spontaneous celebration of Greek culture and identity that truly transcended sport. It didn’t matter if you were born overseas, understood the language, were able to speak it fluently or had any real grasp of Greek history or culture; for at least a brief second, it felt like you and everyone around you was Greek.
Though it might sound like hyperbole given the importance of so many other aspects of the life as part of this diaspora, to football fans especially, it really was that special.
However, such a romantic view doesn’t hide the fact that Greece’s subsequent two appearances at major international tournaments have been disastrous. The overly negative approach taken at Euro 2008 brought zero points and a solitary goal, a seemingly paranoid Otto Rehhagel departing from the more fluent, aggressive football that characterized his side’s qualifying campaign. Watching Traianos Dellas lump diagonal balls from half-way was hardly the stuff of defending champions, as Sweden, then Russia and finally a Spanish B-team eased their way past a Greek side who barely registered a memorable attempt on target. An Angelos Charisteas header from a set piece was fittingly our only goal at the tournament: an ode to a past glory but reflective of an out-dated approach.
The 2010 World Cup was hugely significant for two reasons. First, it announced Greece as a country to be taken seriously as a football force, having qualified for a consecutive major tournament for the first time in its history. Second – and more importantly for Greek fans old enough to remember – it presented an opportunity to banish the demons of USA ’94, where an unprepared, over-the-hill side went home with no points, no home and their pride in tatters. For those such as myself who were too young to remember, enough images of Diego Maradona straining every facial sinew or of Alketas Panagoulias berating his players in this cringe worthy video have been seen to communicate the scale of that particular Greek tragedy.
On the one hand, a first ever World Cup goal and victory in an incredibly nervy but pulsating second match against Nigeria would have been enough to satisfy most fans but the meek manner of defeat against South Korea in the opening game – which essentially dashed ambitions of an appearance in the Last 16 – could also be seen as a missed opportunity. Surprise personnel selection for the opener by Rehhagel pointed to internal strife, a nightmare scenario that dug up unwanted memories forged eight years prior in the US. Given the disastrous beginning to the campaign, the backs-to-the-wall performances against the Nigerians and Lionel Messi’s Argentina did restore pride to the jersey and break the World Cup duck; things could have been a lot worse and thankfully, they weren’t.
That marked the end of Rehhagel’s incredibly successful, near decade-long tenure, with Portuguese manager Fernando Santos succeeding the German. The former AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and PAOK boss has suffered just one loss at the helm of the national team and guided them to top spot in a qualifying group that included a dangerous Croatia. He now has his chance to etch his name into Greek national team history in Poland after an almost perfect start to his tenure.
So, what should we hope for from Santos’ Greece?
Firstly, anyone thinking there will be a marked departure from the more defensive tendencies at past tournaments will be disappointed; Santos has always moulded functional but pragmatic club sides, usually with little resources at his disposal. His Greek team do try to pass the ball on the floor but rely on a counter-attacking brand of football to which set pieces have been key (two corners delivered a decisive victory over Croatia in qualifying).
Whilst this is a squad with some very exciting young talents, Santos is unlikely to chance his arm by handing the likes of Sotiris Ninis and Kostas Fortounis a start, while even the in-form Kyriakos Papadopoulos might not make the Starting XI for the opener. This was one of the main criticisms of Rehhagel post-Euro and while his successor has blooded plenty of younger talent during qualifying, to hand them major responsibility at a tournament proper seems a step too far.
With that in mind, I personally don’t see much hope for this team making it out of their group. Yes, the Czech Republic, Poland and even Russia are beatable opponents but in all likelihood, they have probably looked at Greece as one of the teams they would prefer to have drawn in the competition. After all, this Greek side struggles to score goals from open play, largely because it has never looked convincing with a three-man attack. It also lacks pace and mobility in central midfield, where the ageing Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgos Karagounis will unfortunately both start and perhaps most crucially, it has three goalkeepers who are of unconvincing form and/or fitness. Veteran Kostas Chalkias is likely to start the opener and has always been prone to blunders, inspiring no confidence in the air and looking odds-on to cost Greece at least one goal.
As sobering as the thought is, you have to wonder who will score goals for Greece in the first three games. Only Dimitris Salpingidis has proved capable of stepping up to the plate on the truly big occasions and his fitness is a concern heading into the first match. Set pieces will definitely be our biggest weapon but Karagounis tends to be inconsistent with his delivery at times, so even that isn’t an assured route to goal. It will be a familiar formula for the Greeks unless Santos stuns us and injects young blood into midfield and attack: keep things tight in defence (something Papastathopoulos and co. are more than capable of doing) and nick a goal from a corner or free kick (which is totally dependant on Karagounis).
I certainly don’t get the impression that there are huge expectations of this squad from back home or abroad in any case, with a quarter-final appearance likely to be lauded as a mini-miracle. The Czech Republic represent Greece’s best chance of getting three points, which means a point from a potentially tricky opening game against the hosts would be an excellent result, though one that I think we’re unlikely to achieve given our weakness between the sticks, in midfield and up front.
The fact that we are now a team that consistently qualifies for major tournaments is in itself a huge accomplishment; this was a country that before eight years ago had almost no pedigree at international level and was at times a laughing stock and it’s important to always keep that in mind when watching Greece.
Let’s just enjoy the fact that we are at the tournament and hope these 23 players can provide their countrymen with a few highlights so that they can at least temporarily escape their economic troubles at home.
PS. For those who want to contact me throughout the tournament, I can be found on Twitter @Cparaskevas or via email at email@example.com