As the surprise winners of Euro 2004, Greece can never be underestimated. But after failure to qualify for the last World Cup, a poor showing at Euro 2008, and under-whelming performances in this qualifying campaign, few Greek fans are optimistic about their prospects in South Africa.
Greece was included in the top seeds for the qualifying draw and were rewarded with a relatively easy group, featuring Luxemburg, Moldova, Latvia, Israel, and eventual group winners, Switzerland—to whom Greece lost twice. Seeding helped again in the play-offs when they were paired with an aging Ukraine.
South Korea: June 12
Nigeria: June 17
Argentina: June 22
Greece’s only other appearance at a World Cup was their disastrous campaign in 1994, when they lost all three of their group games. Two of those defeats were against Argentina and Nigeria and Greek fans may have felt an uneasy sense of déja vu when the 2010 draw brought the three nations together again.
But it is their opening game against South Korea that could have the most impact on Greece’s World Cup prospects. Though the Koreans have traditionally performed well at World Cups and were impressive in qualifying for South Africa, a win is not beyond Greece.
Traveling north from the south coast of Port Elizabeth, Greece will face Nigeria at the high altitude stadium in Bloemfontein. The Africans are not the force they once were, and Greek fans will feel they can get a result from this game.
Argentina’s coach, Diego Maradona scored in his country’s 4-0 rout of Greece at the 1994 World Cup. But Greece need not fear Maradona the coach, and will be hoping that the South American team’s erratic form under Maradona continues in South Africa. Alternatively, if Argentina wins both their opening games, they may face Greece in the final group game in Polokwane with nothing to play for.
With 10 goals in qualifying, striker Theofanis Gekas is Greece’s key player in front of goal. Even if his club form in Germany’s Bundesliga this season—initially for Bayer Leverkusen, then on loan at Hertha Berlin—has not been great, his predatory instincts in the six yard box provides much needed potency to Greece’s defensive system.
Some of the veterans of Euro 2004 are still vital to the Greek cause. Captain, Giorgios Karagounis remains the central cog of the midfield, while the defense will be buoyed by the recent return of full back Giorgios Seitaridis after a lengthy series of injuries. In his absence, Liverpool’s Sotiris Kyrgiakos has helped provide the organization and solidity that is essential to Greece’s back line.
The team biggest star is Celtic’s Georgio Samaras. While the striker has not always fulfilled his undoubted talent, he scored a crucial goal against Israel in qualifying and may see the World Cup as an opportunity to work off the frustrations of a miserable season for his club.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Greece’s main strength is undeniably their German coach Otto Rehhagel. He has been in charge of the team since 2001 and masterminded that improbable Euro 2004 victory. Rehhagel tactics involve a controlled and cautious approach often characterized as negative and boring, but which has brought results.
Greece tends to play a defensive form of 4-3-3, with strong defenders and a hard-working midfield. When defending a lead they can often put 10 men behind the ball and are very hard to break down.
Goals are Greece’s main weakness. Aside from Gekas, only four other players scored in their qualifying campaign, and the team averaged only two goals a game in a weak group. Their defensive set-up means they rely on moments of inspiration from their strikers or on set pieces—though admittedly this worked pretty well for them at Euro 2004.
Greece has struggled to replace the retired veterans of that campaign and the squad’s younger players are very inexperienced at international level.
IT WOULD BE A GREAT WORLD CUP IF
After Euro 2004, some Greek fans have raised expectations about what their team can achieve. The more realistic would probably be satisfied for Greece to simply get out of their group. A second round match would see them face a side from Group A—one of the weaker sets in the tournament—so a quarterfinal place might be achievable. After that, fans can start dreaming again.
IT WOULD BE A DISASTER IF
A repeat of the three meek defeats suffered at World Cup ’94 or Euro 2008, would be very disappointing. Greek fans want to show the world that winning Euro 2004 was no fluke, and need a strong showing in South Africa to justify their current FIFA ranking as the 12th best team in the world.
Predictions about Greece will always be tempered by that outsider’s charge to the championship at Euro 2004, but caveats aside, I believe Greece will not make it beyond the group stage.
This World Cup seems set to produce more goals than usual and Greece’s defense simply isn’t as capable of stopping them as it was six years ago. Theofanis Gekas may have been Europe’s top scorer in the qualifying campaign, but he is unlikely to find defenses as charitable in South Africa as they were in Latvia and Luxemburg.
Barring an Argentinean implosion, there is realistically only one qualifying spot up for grabs, and South Korea appears more capable than Greece of taking it.