Looking forward to a bright future

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

And then there were four. Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany into the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and who could really begrudge any of them a place? They’ve been the best teams at the tournament and are fully deserving of their berths. Greece, predictably, were dispatched by a slick German outfit and joined Czech Republic on their way out, followed by France and England.

© PA Photos

Unlike our last two exits from major tournaments, there must be a real sense of pride, optimism and satisfaction in every Greek fan and citizen. Over the last couple of weeks, football seemed to transcend social boundaries and really touch people who so desperately needed a tonic for their ills. Its finest moment was the remarkable 1-0 win over Russia, a mini-miracle that lifted spirits temporarily in a country afflicted by financial crisis.

This was a tournament where, crucially, Greece walked away with their reputation enhanced. It’s a stark contrast to the vitriol directed at the national team when it went for archaic catenaccio at Euro 2008, picking up no points and giving eager critics plenty of ammunition. Negative was the operative word back then.

Spirit is what seems to define this team in the eyes of neutrals now.

Whilst it is not a positive that Greece’s first-half performances were consistently poor, the second-half fight-backs were remarkable and inspiring. Even against Germany, a team who were of a different pedigree and class, there was for a fleeting moment the suggestion of a miracle. Fernando Santos’ side couldn’t have spent more than few cumulative minutes in Die Mannschaft’s half.

But somehow they managed to equalise, to rally, to show endeavour in the face of far superior opposition and what seemed certain defeat. For a few minutes, Georgios Samaras’ goal allowed us to dream and gave us the glorious image of an ashen-faced Angela Merkel alongside a delirious Greek contingent.

Deservedly sent home and thoroughly outplayed? Sure. But this was a performance and a campaign to be utterly proud of. Four goals shipped in a quarter-final is nothing to envy but taking the fight to a German team that could well knock a great Spanish side off their perch certainly is. Scoring two goals against them is certainly an achievement not to be dismissed.

Seeing this Greek side described as “sorry” in a headline for the ESPN match report doesn’t rankle as much as it could. After all, we have been given plenty of moments over which the replay buttons on YouTube videos will be exhausted in years to come. To watch nations of the ilk of England and France imitate the style that brought Greece their stunning success in Portugal eight years ago only to then see certain members of their press criticise the approach Santos’ men took against Germany is thick with irony. Quite frankly I pay no attention to it.

To see this Greece team also take a more cavalier approach was refreshing. They can hardly be accused of being ultra-defensive or relying on set-pieces, instead exhibiting a willingness to commit bodies forward, even when faced with a number of hurdles. From red cards and suspensions, to disallowed goals and injuries, the football Gods have conspired against this team time and time again.

Diego Maradona quipped before the Germany match that if 300 Spartans could defend Thermopylae then 11 Greeks could hold out against Joachim Low’s side. Incorrect though he was, such a comparison fits well with this particular squad of players, who permanently had their backs to the wall but refused to give in.

The Moment: Georgios Samaras’ goal against Germany. We won the battle and lost the war but the mix of disbelief and ecstasy that greeted the equaliser will linger long in my memory.

The Goal: As above. Of all of the goals Greece scored it was the classiest, most well-constructed. From showing desire to win the ball off a team that rarely loses it to Giorgos Fotakis’ delightful release of Dimitris Salpingidis down the line to his world-class assist and the determination of Samaras to apply the finish, this was a goal that had everything and encapsulated Greece’s outstanding campaign.

The Player: Dimitris Salpingidis. Consistently this team’s biggest threat and deserving of a big contract this summer, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him plying his trade in England when the season kicks off again. He scored two goals, including the crucial equaliser against Poland. He also won a penalty in that game and helped change the mentality of this squad for the remainder of the tournament. Oozed class. Special mentions to Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Samaras.

The Manager: Santos passed his first true international test with flying colours. He wasn’t perfect in his tactical approach but was outstanding in his willingness to constantly correct himself and turn games around at half-time. Not afraid to give young players a chance and encouraged flowing, attacking football relative to the resources at his disposal.

The Departed: Kostas Chalkias and Nikos Lyberopoulos have ended their association with the national team. They emotionally bade farewell to the team after the Germany game, where Santos apparently said nothing. Lyberopoulos in particular is a legend who has made crucial contributions throughout his international career. He was given 20 minutes against the Germans in a nice gesture by his manager.

The Future: Bright. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Michalis Sifakis, Vasilis Torosidis, Georgios Samaras, Kostas Fortounis and Sotiris Ninis will lead their country to Brazil. Other young talents could join them over the next few months under a manager who has proved himself astute and progressive.

So this will likely be my last blog entry for these championships and I must say it has been a pleasure. A big thanks to anyone who stumbled across this page. I sincerely hope you were entertained or informed in some way. Feel free to drop me a line at chris.paraskevas@gmail.com, at my Twitter page @Cparaskevas or at Football Hellas (www.footballhellas.com).

Bring on Brazil!

Win for Panagoulias, not politics

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

So I’m a little early in terms of the Greece-Germany match but given the various political and socio-economic layers that are being heaped upon this clash in the build-up, I’m assuming my loyal groupies and casual passers-by in ESPN Soccernet-land are curious to know what a Greek thinks of it all.

Not really? You’re saying I don’t have groupies? You don’t actually care what I think? Too bad, because I’m going to tell you anyway...

Well firstly, I’m not strictly speaking Greek, having been born and raised in Australia and spent my whole life in this country. So that sort of lessens my credentials when it comes to answering the “What are Greeks feeling about the upcoming game?” question. After all, it’s not as if I’m the one who’s starving and waiting in line at understaffed hospitals that are being forced to steal their equipment – that is a tragedy that only the people who live and breathe it can understand but I imagine it is a truly horrible experience.

If I had to provide an answer though, it would be along the lines of either two responses, the first being: Well, the citizens of Greece would obviously relish the opportunity to inflict misery on the austerity-imposing, hypocritical Germans (just to clarify, these aren’t my words but the words of a theoretical, completely imaginary Greek) in any arena, and football will most certainly do. The second response would be: They’ve probably been dealt more than their fair share of misery and pain and would really just like to celebrate it all by escaping the harsh reality of their daily life by celebrating the occasion – regardless of the outcome – for 90 minutes or so.

You’ll probably see plenty of sound and video-bites of Greek and German fans expressing all sorts of sentiments over the next couple of days, as the media feasts on what is a match that is fast transcending the boundaries of sport.

For my part, I’d like to add another lens through which to view this game, admittedly not as far-reaching or universal as politics or economics but nonetheless, this is football we’re talking about.

The death of Alketas Panagoulias would have been the focus of pre-match talk had it not been for the current crisis engulfing Greece and it’s a shame that news of his passing has largely been brushed aside. Even Greek media outlets seem to have been guilty of this to a degree but I’d like to pay a little tribute to the former Greece manager to go along with my piece for Football Hellas.

Panagoulias was the first man to get Greece to a major tournament, doing so when he guided his team to Euro 1980, where they put in three excellent performances (I urge you read UEFA.com’s archives about the matches). He then returned for a second spell in charge of the Ethniki and led them to their first ever World Cup in 1994, where they unfortunately put in three abysmal performances, something that has tainted his otherwise amazing legacy.

Tributes to Panagoulias from former players have painted the picture of a father figure who had incredible motivational qualities; a master of man-management who brought the best out of his players by inspiring belief and confidence in them. The Greek players will wear black armbands to honour the former Olympiacos and US national team manager in their quarter-final against Germany and UEFA should sensibly allow for a minute’s silence before the match, as has been requested by the Hellenic Football Federation.

Despite the prominence of political undertones around the game, I hope a few people spare a thought for this pioneer of Greek football.

Now, in terms of trash talking between the two squads, Joachim Low and his players have exercised an almost radioactive level of diplomacy as they seek to avoid providing further motivation for potentially fired-up Greek players.

So instead, German tabloid Bild has picked up the slack with one of its authors, Franz Josef Wagner, in fine form ahead of the game.

Initially Herr Wagner decided to limit his back-handed remarks to the national team, whom he labelled as “rubbish”. His latest piece of literary brilliance had him writing a letter to the Greek people explaining why his heart is beating for Greece, before describing them in the following terms:

“My heart beats... for the Greeks. For the Greeks with the empty wallets, who don’t have enough money to drink a glass of wine, who don’t have money for a packet of cigarettes, who don’t have money to go to the dentist or pay their rent. And the truth is that it’s difficult to beat those who have nothing to lose - because all they [the Greeks] have now are a few barren mountains, some old olive trees and stray cats.”

Oh, and did I mention Angela Merkel is attending the match?

What do I personally think about all of this?

I don’t put too much stock in it given the players probably don’t either (most of the Greek players have either played, are playing in, or were born in Germany, and certainly aren’t living in poverty themselves) and I’ve got plenty of German friends. But even I’ll admit that my interest has elevated beyond usual levels of obsession – I’ve been doing nothing but watching Helakis videos all week – thanks to the various other elements at play off the pitch.

But if I had to choose between winning to spite the Germans and winning to honour Mr. Panagoulias, I’d most certainly choose the latter...

The Miracle of Warsaw

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

Where were we on Saturday evening? Lisbon? Porto? This was a performance that transported us Greeks back to eight years ago, during happier times both on and off the pitch. The spirit that characterized that famous victory was well and truly alive and these players have written themselves – along with their Portuguese manager Fernando Santos – into folklore.

© PA Photos

But this wasn't the Estadio da Luz or the Estadio do Dragao.

This was the Miracle of Warsaw.

It was a bail-out of epic proportions (had to get the financial pun out of the way early), a result that was nothing short of miraculous and one that will temporarily at least lift spirits in a country that needed some sort of tonic for its economic and socio-political ills.

In the face of every obstacle conceivable thrown at this team by officials who seemed more like undercover IMF agents rather than UEFA employees, desperate to impede an already limited side, this was a victory to savour. These underdogs were written off, apparently doomed after two sluggish performances against sides that were not of the pedigree of their final group opponents.

I’ve mentioned in this blog before that we Greeks only seem to produce our best with our backs to the wall. Ahead of this game I simply couldn’t foresee anything other than a heavy defeat at the hands of the tournament’s form player in Alan Dzagoev and his supporting cast of mobile, technically gifted teammates.

Just where did this performance come from? So reminiscent was it of Euro 2004 that for a fleeting moment I thought I saw Angelos Charisteas and Traianos Dellas on the pitch; alas it was a new generation of heroes imitating their predecessors, Georgios Samaras and Kyriakos Papadopoulos imperious.

For those who had suffered through Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010, this was a long time overdue, a genuinely deserved victory built on togetherness, organization and passion. Watching the substitutes celebrate on the bench when the goal went in, it became apparent just how much these 23 players and their coaching staff cared – it’s not often we’ve been able to say that at major tournaments and it means a lot to fans.

There was no evidence of the ego and there was a sense that fan and player were in this together; perhaps I’m romanticizing a little but this was football close to its pure form in an era where it is sometimes difficult to identify with inflated wages and the self-importance of individuals who appear to live in bubbles.

But these Greek players weren’t all sheltered from troubles at home, many playing at clubs who have been unable to pay them in recent times. I’m not for a minute suggesting they are suffering as their fellow citizens are but they’ll certainly have at least a faint idea of what they are going through. Perhaps that counted for something and the talk of giving people something to cheer about wasn’t just rhetoric.

Much as Russia were abysmal and clearly ran out of steam, either fatigued or overconfident – perhaps a little of both – following their thumping win over the Czechs, Greece had to earn this victory. Even when ahead luck deserted them, Giorgos Karagounis booked and now suspended after being denied what seemed a clear penalty, while the frame of the goal conspired to deny Georgios Tzavellas a famous goal.

In fact, this was hardly a performance to fit the anti-football stereotype that has followed this country around since Portugal. A first half of containment was ended with a goal that showed Greece’s endeavour was only overshadowed by their defensive organization, Karagounis driving into the box with purpose and only one thing on his mind – this was an evening when a notoriously conservative side chanced its arm.

If there was one player who epitomized how this team was so suddenly transformed it was certainly Georgios Samaras, maligned for his inconsistency by Greek fans as much as he is by their Celtic equivalents. Finally he delivered the sort of talismanic performance of which he is capable, at times single-handedly holding off packs of Russian defenders, the focal point in attack and a crucial contributor in defence. All that was missing was a goal to cap off one of the finest individual displays at Euro 2012.

There were other memorable performances: Karagounis winding back the years, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Sokratis Papastathopoulos towers of strength, Vasilis Torosidis dominating the right flank and Michalis Sifakis a figure of calm between the sticks. Fernando Santos meanwhile saw his tactical vision for this Greek team come to fruition: compact defensively, mobile in attack and quick to transition from defence to midfield and then the final third.

It’s a surreal feeling. Are we really about to take on Germany in the quarter-finals of the European Championships? Wasn’t this the team that meekly surrendered to the Czech Republic only days ago and was on the brink of an early exit?

No. This was the team that went through qualifying undefeated, that beat Croatia 2-0 at home and kept them scoreless on the road, that boasts one of world football’s most miserly defences and is one of its most difficult to beat and dispirit.

We were just waiting for them to show up. It's only taken eight years...

PS. Commiserations to fellow blogger Michael Yokhin, who provided much banter over the past few days and who's latest entry is a fantastic read. Make sure you check out his blog here before you go.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

My apologies to the legions of fans of this blog who were disappointed by the lack of an update after Greece’s latest in a long line of major tournament debacles. As a result of a few non-Euro 2012 related study commitments (how dare my university set exams during the sacred football month of June), I’m caught in a bit of a no-man’s land, unable to dedicate an entire piece to the post-mortem of the 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic on the eve of what is probably our final appearance at these finals against Russia.

So unsurprisingly frustrating was the last performance that it warrants some type of analysis, so in the interests of covering all bases, I’ll turn to what I consider to be the greatest film of all time as providing the framework for this piece.

The Bad

Greece need to beat Russia to progress.

This is the nightmare scenario we feared before the competition began and it has come to fruition: the Russians with everything to play for, by no means assured of their place in the next round and approaching the match in good form. WRONG

This is the nightmare scenario we feared before the competition began and it has come to fruition: Greece will need to score a goal in their final group game.

A harsh assessment? Consider that the two goals we’ve scored in Poland have come courtesy of goalkeeping blunders, presenting our strikers with an empty net to slot the ball into – in truth, on neither occasion was I remotely confident that they would actually succeed, given this team’s lack of attacking confidence and ideas.

Despite again improving after the break, this Greek side proved utterly devoid of hunger, creativity and adventure in attack. Is it a coaching issue or simply a case of the players not being good or willing enough to score goals? I’m going to say the latter, though the managerial post-mortem I’ll leave till after our participation in the tournament has concluded (so make sure you’re at this page on Sunday).

Taking the initiative and winning games is something this squad hasn’t done well over the past decade and to suddenly try to do so against a team that is lethal on the counter-attack and extremely mobile would be suicidal. So it’ll probably me more of the same from Fernando Santos’ men, who will look to keep things tight and pinch a goal at some point – not that it’s worked for them particularly well so far against sides of far lesser ability.

So, just to recap, the scenario is as follows: a team that doesn’t know how to attack needs to attack a team that operates exclusively and successfully on the counter-attack (and they only need to draw to progress).

The Ugly

After almost being punished for a slow start in their opening game against Poland, the Greeks recovered and learned from their mistake, starting strongly against Czech Republic side who were always likely to come out firing after their 4-1 defeat. WRONG

After almost being punished for a slow start in their opening game against Poland, the Greeks did exactly the same thing in their second game and were punished even more severely by a Czech Republic side who were always likely to come out firing after their 4-1 defeat.

This side has its limitations, so defeat in either, both, or all three of its matches at the group stages of Euro 2012 would hardly have come as a shock. A slow start against Poland is also forgivable given it does happen in football, understandable also because of the scale of the occasion and the fact that the opposing team were the host nation. But to do it a second time, just days after, in a far worse manner and against a team who were always going to replicate the approach of the Poles, is simply unacceptable.

Were these players not expecting anything different? If they weren’t, then the question has to be asked: were they aware that a football game was underway somewhere in Wroclaw while they were cruising through the opening half? (Just to clarify, there was a Euro 2012 game in Wroclaw at that exact time between Greece and the Czech Republic...)

Even with Fernando Santos’ changes at half time, the performance was only fractionally improved in the second half, thanks largely to the Czechs taking their foot off the gas and losing Tomas Rosicky to injury. A lack of creativity is nothing new for this team and going for a direct route to goal was always going to be the result. What is particularly galling about that approach though is the sheer lack of intensity, conviction and desire behind it, with nowhere near enough players committing themselves forward or looking as if they wanted the ball in order to change the game.

The Good

Despite the largely turgid performance, somehow Greece enter their final group game with their destiny entirely in their hands.

A victory would ensure them a place in the knockout stages regardless of other results and if they were to perform a miracle and beat the Russians – make no mistake about it, it would be nothing short of a miracle if it happened – then Theofanis Gekas’ goal against the Czechs will be of a similar significance to that scored by Zisis Vryzas against Russia in 2004.

When you consider Italy - who have been placed in a far tougher group and performed better than Greece, picking up two points from games against Spain and Croatia – might still be heading home if they win their final match against Ireland, it really is amazing that Greece are in such a position.

Further boosts for Santos include the return of first-choice centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who will allow Kostas Katsouranis – whose aimless punts into the box reminded me of why I have directed so much vitriol towards him before his improved performance against Poland - to return to midfield, bringing a little more balance to the side. Kostas Chalkias meanwhile has been ruled out through injury in a blessing that can barely be disguised after he cost his side at least two goals in its opening two games, allowing for the far more steady Michalis Sifakis to take his place between the sticks.

Logic tells me Russia will win this match by a comfortable margin but Dick Advocaat’s side certainly aren’t invincible, as they showed the other night as they were held to a 1-1 draw by the hosts.

Is it too much to hope that this team can rouse itself for just 90 minutes and summon up the backs-to-the-wall mentality that has kept it alive in the tournament thus far?

We Greece fans are long overdue a miracle...

A satisfying dilemma

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

It’s only in the aftermath of the first round of group games at Euro 2012 that you can truly appreciate the value of the Greece’s point against Poland. I write this entry just a couple of hours before England take on France to kick off their campaign, so I wonder if either of those sides will be on the brink of elimination after just 90 minutes, just as the Netherlands and Portugal seem to be.

Needlessly to say, these teams have at their disposal a talent pool that is of a different football universe to Greece (but seeing as how we apparently invented the Universe and everything in it, I guess it doesn't really matter all that much...).

Yet despite boasting two of the world’s biggest celestial football bodies in their respective starting line-ups in the form of Robin Van Persie and Cristiano Ronaldo, both are in a far more precarious position than Fernando Santos’ side at this early stage of the tournament.

Granted, the opposition they faced was of a higher calibre than that of Poland, though you can’t discount the impact of a home crowd who’s support Franciszek Smuda’s capitalized on during a blistering opening 45 minutes. Greece had one mission: to survive, which they did thanks to a combination of poor finishing, inspired coaching and retrospectively, a refereeing error that helped more than hindered them.

So while the Dutch and the Portuguese squads face departures that would not be well received back in their homelands after just two games, the Greeks are perhaps slight favourites to pip the Czechs and Poland to second spot. To further put the achievement into context, Greece have suffered defeat in their first match at every major tournament in which they’ve competed, with the exception of Euro 2004. Meekly surrendering three points to Sweden in 2008 and then allowing the Korea Republic to take advantage of their infighting in 2010 were deflating occasions for fans after much anticipation in the build-up.

Despite the potential ramifications of Giorgos Karagounis’ penalty miss, the situation could be far worse considering the opening 45 minutes of the Poland game was frighteningly reminiscent of our start to the previous Euro and World Cup.

It’s an almost awkward feeling heading into the second game against the Czech Republic, seeing as how their plight is more like that of previous Greek teams. Momentum is undoubtedly with Santos and his players but there are interesting dilemmas for the Portuguese manager on the eve of kick-off.

The first is whether he seizes the initiative against a team who’s confidence will be in tatters following their mauling at the hands of a slick Russia. I personally saw the game against the Czechs as the most winnable given Greece’s recent slow starts at finals and the fact that Poland would come out fired up in the opener. However, if Dick Advocaat’s men rip through the hosts – and they very well could – that would render their final match virtually meaningless and it’s unlikely the Dutch tactician would risk his best players on the eve of the knockout stages.

A weakened Russia are a beatable Russia, with this team still just a shadow of the Arshavin-inspired machine that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008. Santos might just be willing to settle for a point in this game whilst banking on Poland to lose their second match. It might seem overly pragmatic to rely on other results for your own progress but considering how injuries and suspension have deprived Greece of key personnel, regroup and regather wouldn’t be a bad mentality against the Czechs.

While Santos won’t play for a draw, he’ll certainly reprise his defence first, attack second approach and look to hurt Tomas Rosicky and friends on the counter-attack in the same fashion that Russia did. If Greece are to keep things tight at the back then they’ll need to seriously consider the make up of their defence and midfield with Sokratis Papastathopoulos suspended and Avraam Papadopoulos out of the tournament through an injury he picked up in the first half against the Poles.

Those are two starting centre-backs who were at the heart of Greece’s miserly defence during qualifying. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Kostas Katsouranis were the makeshift pairing during the second half of the opening fixture and did a superb job shackling the dangerous Robert Lewandowski, so it would seem the problem has been solved for Santos; Papadopoulos’ youthful exuberance gave Greece an increased mobility and aggression at the back, while Katsouranis relocation from midfield to defence improved both departments and saw him turn in his best performance for the national team in years.

However, an eventful Greek campaign took another twist with the news that Georgios Fotakis suffered a thigh injury at training.

It’s amazing to think that before the tournament began, the PAOK man would have been considered nothing more than a fringe player who might come off the bench. Yet his potential absence could change the entire dynamic of Santos’ side; Fotakis could potentially have taken Katsouranis’ place in midfield with the latter allowed to remain in defence. Instead, his injury may necessitate a gamble on the inexperienced Grigoris Makos of AEK – who before the start of Euro 2012 was beneath even Fotakis in the midfield pecking order – or on Stelios Malezas, the squad’s fifth-choice centre-back if you consider Katsouranis a potential defender.

Whatever the scenario, it seemingly is a case of the lesser of evils when you consider Katsouranis moving back into the centre of the park to accommodate for Malezas would deprive both departments.

Jose Holebas’ poor performance at left-back could bring further change at the back, with the rather more steady Georgios Tzavellas only beaten to a starting spot because his club form this season wasn’t as impressive as that of the Olympiacos man. With the Theodor Gebre Selassie set to be marauding down the right flank for the Czechs, can another chance be afforded to Holebas? It might seem harsh to axe the German-born Greek after just one match but these are the sort of snap decisions that can turn things around in tournament football.

Equally important changes will also need to be made in attack, where Sotiris Ninis flattered to deceive after being handed a start. Theofanis Gekas too was ineffective, while their replacements Kostas Fortounis and Dimitris Salpingidis exerted considerable influence on the match, the latter scoring the equalizer and winning a penalty. Will Georgios Samaras be replaced by Fortounis after a typically frustrating display against Poland to make way for teenager Fortounis, or will he be given a central berth with Gekas the man to make way?

Even goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias’ position is not safe after his rash decision to rush out presented Lewandowski with an open net and served as a reminder of his error-prone ways.

A squad that has based its modern success on stability will instead need a bit of ingenuity on the part of its manager if it is to progress further in this tournament. And while there are considerable problems Santos needs to solve against the Czech Republic, the reward will be greater than that offered to Greece after the second game at previous finals, which makes this a rather more satisfying dilemma for manager, player and fan alike.

Alive and kicking

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

In the build-up to Greece’s Euro 2012 campaign I have written repeatedly about the obduracy of this current squad and the unapologetic nature of a defensive approach that served them so well during qualifying.

The qualities that make them one of the continent’s most difficult teams to break down were non-existent in the opening 45 minutes in Warsaw and, combined with two awful decisions from Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo and an adrenaline rush that saw Poland race out of the blocks, it resulted in yours truly directing carefully chosen expletives in a variety of languages towards the nearest television screen.

There’s something almost poetic about the way a fan can cohesively string together prose at such moments of pure frustration and anger. Whether it was at Carballo for his ludicrous sending off of Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Georgios Samaras for, well, being Georgios Samaras, there would have been no expense spared in the swearing department from Greek fans all over the world.

This tournament could so easily have been over after a mere half-hour had it not been for the wastefulness of a pulsating Polish side. Upon reflection, Carballo’s mistake probably helped Greece find a way back into the game, forcing a structural change from Santos that suited his players far more and inspiring a backs-to-the-wall mentality that they really should have adopted from the opening whistle.

It took an unfair sending-off and a failed penalty award to do it but the Greek players finally awoke from their slumber and realised that they were at a European Championship; there really is nothing like the sight of a passionate Greek who has just been insulted or dealt a hand of severe injustice in any walk of life. Perhaps it is in our DNA that we produce our best at times of adversity, only really push ourselves when being pushed. Whatever the explanation, this was a performance to be proud of.

From a tactical standpoint, Fernando Santos emerges with huge credit (and I’ll not indulge in clever IMF-related puns in this article, despite the ease with which I could do it) for his changes at half-time: persisting with Kostas Katsouranis at centre-back, bringing on Dimitris Salpingidis and strengthening the spearhead of his attack were key to turning this game around. In that respect he showed a side to his management that was sorely lacking during Otto Rehhagel’s reign, the German far less likely to make such key changes to personnel and shape.

The Greek FA’s recent decision to award Santos a handsome pay-rise and contract extension was not a popular decision among citizens back home given the country’s state of economic turmoil, yet he earned a considerable chunk of it by passing his first major test as a national team manager.

Admittedly his hand was somewhat forced by the exits of the aforementioned Sokratis and Avraam Papadopoulos through injury but the half-time team-talk and substitutions were all spot on. Trusting in 20-year-old Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his fellow German-based player Kostas Fortounis paid dividends, the two turning in outstanding performances and surely pressing for a starting spot against Czech Republic.

Give me the opportunity to list Kostas Katsouranis’ shortcomings for the national team and I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to produce a thesis on the subject but he was immense at the heart of the Greek defence, bringing a sense of calm and an organisational quality that was missing in the first-half. He simply must play in that position alongside Kyriakos against the Czechs.

However, I’ll leave the tactical discussions for my next entry and instead focus on the fact that Greece are still alive and kicking after their first game. It may not seem like much to have stolen a point off a Polish side who in the end were exposed as being ordinary but, when you consider our last two appearances at major tournaments began with disastrous defeats, this is a huge point, even despite Karagounis’ penalty miss.

Defensive shape and organization were conspicuous in their absence from large parts of this performance but they were replaced by other qualities: spirit, togetherness and determination. Euro 2004 may have essentially been a tactical victory but formation and systems would have meant nothing without the grit and application of the individuals. In that respect, this was a performance reminiscent of those that came eight years ago and one that bodes well for the immediate future.

If there was one endearing image from this game for Greeks, it perhaps was the sight of Santos’ players acknowledging their fans at the end of the game, the traveling party in celebratory mood despite only gaining a point. In difficult circumstances both on the pitch and off the pitch for players, fans and citizens of Greece alike, this was a moment to celebrate and savor. May there be more to come in the coming weeks.

Greece against the world

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

Break out the Euro 2004 highlights DVD, load up the Helakis Youtube videos and put on those Spartan helmets – even if like most people who wear them you have no ancestral connection to Leonidas’ home – because it’s time for a severe injection of delusional optimism and borderline nationalistic flag-waving pride ahead of Greece’s opening Euro 2012 game.

Anyone unfortunate enough to be familiar with my writing will know that I am considered when it comes to analysis of Greek football, always keen to lower expectation and paint a picture of the national team as it is post-Euro 2004: lacking in creativity, highly functional and constantly over-performing.

But I wouldn’t be a true fan if I didn’t allow myself to occasionally get carried away, to dream of the impossible (in this case, Greece managing more than a shot on goal across 90 minutes) and to allow myself a surge of excitement on-par with that felt by a comic book fan-boy who has just got his hands on the latest bootlegged Dark Knight Rises set photo - just to be clear, I am not a fan-boy and have something approaching a social life (best not to think about my ESPN FC profile picture when reading that last line).

On the eve of kick-off against Poland, I can tangibly feel the anxiety. This is the sort of moment that Greek football fans of my generation simply need to be appreciative of, something that we take for granted at times, forgetting the fact that this country was once a football basket case. It’s moments of anticipation like this that we celebrate qualifying for major international tournaments – and this is the third consecutive European Championship we are about to compete in.

Third consecutive.


European Championship.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I could sit here and talk about Kostas Chalkias, Greece’s first-choice goalkeeper who reminds me of that old man who releases his arrow too early at Helms Deep (you just know he’s about to choke and he doesn’t disappoint). I could talk about Kostas Katsouranis, a man whose political clout within the dressing room wouldn’t be out of place in the Roman senate and who has contributed nothing on the pitch for his country over the last eight years. But the post-mortem can wait.

Instead I’m going to point out that every single favourite including Spain has a conspicuous defensive weakness at the tournament, while Greece has the most settled backline of any of the 16 teams. I’m going to mention Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Ioannis Fetfatzidis and Sotiris Ninis, three young players with huge futures ahead of them who could have a big impact in Poland if given the right opportunity.

Granted, they probably won’t start the opening game and Fernando Santos will send his eleven players out with instructions to frustrate the hosts and break-up play at every opportunity. Anti-football will be the familiar howl of derision from commentators and neutrals. In case any of them were wondering: no Greek fan will care about the manner of victory.

This is a team that travels to Poland with its back to the wall in a number of ways, with its citizens suffering from economic turmoil at home and its players also feeling the effects, some of whom are at clubs who can’t afford to pay their wages. Greece are also likely to be universally unpopular at the tournament for the style of their football, as well as the absence of any particular star player for fans to identify with. Hopefully the squad rally under such circumstances and produce the sort of gritty, uncompromising team effort that saw it nullify the considerable attacking talents of Croatia during qualifying.

Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less if the watching world has decided that Barcelona’s “tiki-taka” is something every team and player on the planet should aspire to. We are Greece, not Spain. We don’t have the luxury of world-class attacking talent or a world-class national league to develop them in. We will play to our strengths, we will frustrate, we will scrap, we will win set-pieces, we will score from set-pieces and we will put eleven men behind the ball if need be. What’s more, we will be completely, utterly and proudly unapologetic about it all, especially if it succeeds. Kyriakos Papadopoulos' admission that his team are the most boring in Group A is like a war-cry; defiant music to the ears of his countrymen.

Am I suggesting we will approach our opener with the same archaic game plan that was painfully punished by Sweden in 2008? No. Fernando Santos builds teams around a counter-attacking approach and has retained the same system that brought Otto Rehhagel success during his nine-year reign. He is a pragmatist but he does encourage his teams to at least attempt to pass the ball when in possession – however, there will again be an attitude of defend first and attack (with extreme caution) second.

Either way, Greeks everywhere will enjoy the fact that their country has the honour of raising the curtain at football’s second biggest tournament. A point against Poland certainly isn’t out of this side’s reach and would set it up nicely for a winnable second game against a Czech Republic that is a shadow of its former self. Russia definitely represents the most difficult challenge, assuming they haven’t qualified with two wins by that stage. If Greece can start with a win, it will almost certainly get out of the group. This is a team that thrives on confidence, that rarely throws away a lead and that would be perfectly suited to the knockout football that awaits beyond the final group game. Once there - as we discovered eight years ago - it really is anyone’s tournament.

Greece at Euro 2012: Expect the expected

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

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 chris.paraskevas@gmail.com

Greece axe Tziolis and Kone

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

Greece coach Fernando Santos has dropped midfield duo Alexandros Tziolis and Panagiotis Kone from his final 23-man squad for the European Championship.

Both players featured in Greece's 1-1 draw with Slovenia on Saturday, but Santos has decided Tziolis lacked fitness after only featuring three times for club side AS Monaco, while Kone had been expected to be cut after he hit a Slovenia player and was sent off.

Santos said: "We know that Tziolis hasn't played enough this season. But that's why we take players along to the training camp, to check out their condition."

AEK Athens' veteran striker Nikos Liberopoulos has made the cut after scoring seven goals in the Greek league. The 36-year-old joins Giorgos Samaras in attack, despite the Celtic player having scored just once in eight qualifiers.

"We've had problems developing our attacks. We need to keep possession more and be patient," Santos said. "What happened with Kone is a shame. Sometimes in the heat of the match we lose our minds."

Greece, the surprise champions at Euro 2004, were drawn with co-hosts Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic in Group A.

Greece squad

Goalkeepers: Kostas Chalkias (PAOK FC), Michalis Sifakis (Aris Thessaloniki FC), Alexandros Tzorvas (US Città di Palermo).

Defenders: Vassilis Torossidis (Olympiacos FC), Kyriakos Papadopoulos (FC Schalke 04), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (SV Werder Bremen), Avraam Papadopoulos (Olympiacos FC), José Holebas (Olympiacos FC), Giorgos Tzavellas (AS Monaco FC), Stelios Malezas (PAOK FC).

Midfielders: Kostas Katsouranis (Panathinaikos FC), Giorgos Karagounis (Panathinaikos FC), Giannis Maniatis (Olympiacos FC), Giorgos Fotakis (PAOK FC), Grigoris Makos (AEK Athens FC), Giannis Fetfatzidis (Olympiacos FC), Sotiris Ninis (Panathinaikos FC), Kostas Fortounis (1. FC Kaiserslautern).

Forwards: Dimitris Salpingidis (PAOK FC), Giorgos Samaras (Celtic FC), Fanis Gekas (Samsunspor), Nikos Liberopoulos (AEK Athens FC), Kostas Mitroglou (Atromitos FC).