There is now less than a month to go until the European Championships kick off in Poland and Ukraine, and taking on the co-hosts in the opening match will be a nation that caused arguably the biggest surprise in the history of the competition: Greece. But with a new coach and having caused something of a surprise just to reach the last sixteen of this tournament, can Greece roll back the years to the summer of 2004?
The History: After decades of relative non-achievement, German coach Otto Rehhagel travelled to the 2004 European Championships in Portugal which irritated the aesthetes but produced a stunning result. Greece beat the host nation twice, France and the Czech Republic on the way to lifting the trophy, but since then they have failed to replicate this success. In seeking to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, they were placed a tricky group and could only finish in fourth place, behind Ukraine, Turkey and Denmark. Their 2004 win meant that the team was placed as one of the top seeds in qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, and this time they lived up to their billing, winning ten of their twelve qualifying matches, finishing seven points clear of second-placed Turkey. Once at the finals, however, they couldn’t repeat their success of four years earlier and finished bottom of their group, having failed to pick up a single point. In qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals, they finished in second place in their group behind Switzerland but beat Ukraine over two legs in the play-offs to qualify to travel to South Africa. This time around, they did pick up one victory – a 2-1 win against Nigeria – but defeats against South Korea and Argentina meant a third placed finish in their group and another early return home.
The Team: Greece’s qualification for the finals of the tournament was solid if unspectacular, with the team winning their group with seven wins and three draws in ten games with four points from their two matches against Croatia proved to be the most significant results of all. Greece’s problem in qualifying was scoring goals. They only scored fourteen in their ten qualifying matches and of their current squad only Theofanis Gekas of the Turkish side Samsunspor has reached double figures, with twenty-one goals from his fifty-six appearances for this country. The players expected to be called up for the finals mostly play their domestic football in Greece – only one, Celtic’s Giorgos Samaras, plays in the United Kingdom – and the squad expected to travel to the finals will be a mixture of old and young, with youthful players such as Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Werder Bremen and Kyriakos Papadopoulos of Schalke being augmented by veterans such as Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Charisteas (who was recalled after going sixteen months without a call-up).
The Coach: The departure of Otto Rehhagel from the post of head coach to the team after the 2010 World Cup finals marked the end of an era for Greek football, but the Greek FA had an ideal replacement in the Portuguese coach Fernando Santos. Santos has spent most of his career coaching in Greece, although his biggest honour as a coach so far came in his home country, where he led Porto to the Portuguese title and two successive cup wins between 1999 and 2001. Widely respected in Greece, having coached PAOK, AEK and Panathinaikos, Santos passed his first test in qualifying the team for the finals of this competition without losing a game, but Greece have as good a chance as any as getting through the group stages of this tournament, but recent failures in 2008 and 2010 may have tempered expectations at home somewhat. Santos has already had his contract extended by the Greek FA until 2014, so he is unlikely to find his position in major danger should they fail to get through the group stages this time around.
The Prospects: Those looking for omens of Greek success only have to consider that, just as in 2004, Greece kick off their tournament against the host nation in its opening match. Whilst Greece remain difficult to break down, though, question marks remain over whether the veteran players in this squad have another major tournament in them, and the feeling that the success of eight years ago was a one-off remains high. With no stand-out players, it seems likely that Greece’s familiar system of seeking to contain the opposition while looking for opportunities to score on the break can comfortably be out-thought by opposing coaches. A team that is solid but unspectacular may be able to edge its way through the group stages, but it is difficult to see Greece being able to get much further than this. It should be remembered, however, that this is exactly what people said in 2004.
The Kit: Greece have, in the past, had a tendency to treat the blue and white of their shirts as being somewhat interchangeable, and at the moment the current home kit is predominantly white, with a cross across the middle of it. It manages, fortunately, to miss out a lot of the faff that has blighted Adidas kits in recent years and is reasonably easy on the eye. Their change kit is a mirror image of this kit, all in royal blue. Adidas have had the contract to supply equipment to the Greek team for nine years and their contract is up this year, so perhaps they will be hoping that the team is successful and boosts sales this summer.
The National Anthem: Based on legends of a revolution against the Ottoman empire in 1821, “Hymn To Liberty” is a national anthem that truncates the 158 stanza hymn of the same name. Its use at home is fairly benign, but the song is surrounded by controversy over its use on the divided island of Cyprus. Cyprus rather forgot to get itself a national anthem when it gained independence from Britain in 1960, and the song came to be used as the country’s national anthem (at least on the Greek side of the divide – the Turkish side uses the Turkish national anthem. As part of a plan to diffuse tensions as the country joined the European Union, a new, wordless anthem was written but this was rejected by voters on the island. So now you know.
The British Media Will Say: “They’ll be looking to take people’s minds off the economic situation this summer”, “2004. 2004. 2004. 2004″, “I bet his name is a high score in Scrabble” (again), “Greek tragedy” (should they flop), “they’re ascending the heights of Mount Olympus” (should they do well), “None of these players play in the Premier League. They can’t be any good, can they?” (this may be paraphrased, but there is every chance that it won’t be).
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