While the recently ended UEFA EURO 2012 certainly had a worthy winner in Spain, it was not only La Furia Roja who caught the eye with their performances. The Greece side emerged as one of the surprise packages of the tournament after reaching the quarter-finals.
Their progress to knockout rounds lifted them up three places to 12th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It is the highest the EURO 2004 winners have been since October 2011.
The Greeks did not get off to a great start at EURO 2012, after a 1-1 draw with co-hosts Poland and a 2-1 defeat against Czech Republic left them on the brink of elimination. Yet a surprising 1-0 victory over dark horses Russia ensured they made it to the next round.
Santos replaces Rehhagel
But there three-time world champions Germany were just too strong and Greece headed home after a 4-2 defeat, albeit with pride in their accomplishments. “We are not the best, but whoever plays against us will have to spit blood in order to win,” coach Fernando Santos said prior to the quarter-final match. Indeed, it was their passion and never-say-die attitude that made Greece such a formidable opponent.
“We enjoyed every moment, as well as the fact that we had to fight every day,” said Dimitrios Salpingidis at the final whistle. “We gave everything and are leaving the tournament with our heads held high.”
Such an outlook is entirely justifiable, as since 2010 it is not only in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking that they have shown an upward trend. That year’s FIFA World Cup™ was Greece’s second tournament participation after USA 1994. When they failed to make it out of the group stage in South Africa, coach Otto Rehhagel left and Santos took over.
The upheaval continues
With the benefit of hindsight, the appointment of the Portuguese coach appears to have been a masterstroke. Under Santos, the Piratiko (Pirate ship) went an incredible 17 games unbeaten between August 2010 and November 2011. They were rewarded with participation in their fourth of the last five major tournaments. “We need to bring in young talent alongside the experienced players to build a strong team,” the 57-year-old said upon taking charge, and he has been true to his word.
They qualified for EURO 2012 as group winners after an undefeated campaign that brought seven victories (including one against Croatia) and three draws. The only criticism was a lack of goals. Their total of 14 during qualification was the lowest of all tournament participants. At the other end of the pitch however, they only conceded five.
Despite their positive showing in Poland/Ukraine, there will be further upheaval in the Greek squad after Nikos Liberopoulos and goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias announced their decision to retire from the national side.
New stars need to step up
“At the end of the game I could have cried, I didn’t want to leave the pitch,” said Liberopoulos. It was an equally emotional moment for Chalkias: “This month was the best of my entire career.”
Uncertainty surrounds the futures of veteran players such as Kostas Katsouranis, Theofanis Gekas and captain Georgios Karagounis, who was suspended for the quarter-final but became his country’s most capped player at the tournament with 120 appearances. “I’m 33 now and need to think about if I want to carry on,” said Katsouranis. “But the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is very appealing.”
Compared to previous years, the difference now is that the future appears to be secure. Players like Kyriakos Papadopoulos (20), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (24) and Konstantinos Fortounis (19) are still at the beginning of their careers, both for club and country. “The team definitely has a future,” said Papastathopoulos, echoing the thoughts of the more experienced Georgios Samaras (27).
Focus on Brazil
“I’m sure that more young players will come into the side,” said Samaras. “From September we’ll start looking towards Brazil and I think everyone in the team, everyone in Greece, is hoping we will get there."
For that to happen they must first overcome Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia and Lichtenstein in the FIFA World Cup qualifying rounds. Going by the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking alone, Greece are the clear favourites to top their group. “I have to admit that the draw was good,” said Santos immediately after finding out his side’s opponents. “Especially when you see which teams will face each other in the other groups.”
With the wind now very much in their sails, the Greeks are setting their sights on Brazil. If results in the last few months are anything to go by, the Piratiko are well equipped to cope with stormy seas as they prepare for the next adventure.