Having scaled the heights by scoring the goal that made Greece UEFA EURO 2004 champions, Angelos Charisteas rounded off the defending champions' disappointing contribution to Austria/Switzerland 2008 with a consolation goal against Spain. Stern-faced after his side's early elimination from the tournament, the hero of Portugal 2004 spoke to FIFA.com before starting the journey home.
"It's a difficult time for the players because we're out of the competition," says the Nuremberg striker, who dedicated last night's goal to goalkeeping team-mate Antonis Nikopolidis. "All I can say is that we've given our all in every game and we've played our hearts out for our country. Not for a single moment did we forget we were the champions, and we've given absolutely everything."
Following defeat by Russia in their second match in Group D, the holders' final outing against Spain was a purely academic exercise, not that that stopped Charisteas and Co from trying their hardest to go out on a high note. "It was my second goal of the tournament because as far as I'm concerned the one I scored against Russia shouldn't have been disallowed," he says with an unmistakable hint of frustration.
Otto Rehhagel's charges have had plenty of time already to
ponder the reasons for their early exit, but the disappointment is
still evident in the dejected frontman's voice. "What made
things difficult for us was losing so easily to Sweden in our
opening match. We battled hard against Russia but we just
couldn't get the equaliser."
The criticism from some quarters is that the side has gone stale and has continued to pursue exactly the same tactics since triumphing in Portugal, a viewpoint that Charisteas is quick to reject. "We used the same tactical system in the qualifiers and we won our group with 31 points," he explains.
"That means that the system is not the problem. Every team has a strongpoint, a specific style. Italy are very strong defensively, for example, but they let in three goals in their first game here. So what does that tell you about systems and tactics? Football is all about what happens on the day."
In reaching Austria and Switzerland, Greece harvested more points than any of their fellow 15 qualifiers and finished above neighbours and rivals Turkey, which makes their performances here all the more puzzling. "It's too late to go on about it now but we were full of hope when we arrived here," laments the 28-year-old. "So to get knocked after only two games is very hard to take."
"The strength of this team lies in its mental toughness," continues the No9 in defence of his colleagues. "We were all very motivated and each game was really special. We shouldn't forget either that in the qualifiers over the last two years we have shown exactly why we were champions. Maybe we played badly in the last couple of games but we've done brilliantly in recent years and perhaps that's why I'm so disappointed now. It's really tough to lose everything we've achieved in the last two years in just a matter of a week."
But while the departing champions will now have to reluctantly hand over their crown and watch the final stages of the competition at home, their thoughts will soon be turning to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and a new round of qualifying matches, starting in barely two months.
"We need to look ahead now," concludes Charisteas, trying to look on the bright side. "We have to put this tournament behind us, get some rest and get in the right frame of mind for the next phase. It's very important we look to the future because the World Cup qualifiers start in a couple of months and we need to be fully prepared for that."