After seemingly coming from nowhere to triumph at UEFA EURO 2004, Greece continue to defy the odds under wily coach Otto Rehhagel and have clinched qualification for only their second FIFA World Cup™ finals.
Though dismissing Rehhagel would have amounted to high treason, given the regal status ‘King Otto’ has enjoyed since victory on Portuguese soil, failure to reach Germany 2006 and a limp group-stage exit at EURO 2008 had ratcheted up the pressure on the German supremo. The Greek FA kept the faith, however, and were rewarded by qualification for their first global finals since USA 1994.
The road to South Africa
Greece kicked off South Africa 2010 qualifying in impressive fashion, picking up victories over Luxembourg, Latvia and Moldova, scoring eight times and conceding none in the process.
The 2004 European champions subsequently suffered their first loss in Group 2 when going down 2-1 at home to Switzerland, their clearest rivals for an automatic qualifying berth. After bouncing back with four points from their double-header against Israel, drawing 1-1 away and winning 2-1 at home, the Helvetians then undid the Greeks once more – this time triumphing 2-0 on Swiss soil.
Rehhagel’s troops then allowed Switzerland to extend their advantage in the standings by only drawing 1-1 in Moldova, a result that also brought Latvia back into the hunt for second. A thumping 5-2 victory over the latter in Greece’s penultimate group match virtually clinched a play-off spot, however, which was sealed by the final day 2-1 win against Luxembourg.
The European Zone play-off draw pitted captain Georgios Karagounis and Co against Ukraine, opponents who had taken four points from the Greeks in Group 2 of qualifying for Germany 2006. This time around, after a 0-0 draw in Athens, Greece grabbed a 1-0 second-leg success in Donetsk, the decisive goal coming from Dimitrios Salpingidis.
The star players
There will be no shortage of experience for the Greeks to call on come South Africa 2010. Chief among their veteran performers are defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who played more qualifying minutes than any other squad member, and former Inter Milan and Benfica midfielder Karagounis. Nor are they slouches going forward, boasting as they do ten-goal Theofanis Gekas - the top scorer in European Zone qualifying - and the physical presence of four-goal Angelos Charisteas, scorer of the winner in the final at EURO 2004.
South Africa 2010 will be coach Rehhagel’s first FIFA World Cup finals, where he is set to be the oldest strategist on show. After a glittering career in his homeland, the German boss has earned worldwide recognition for his achievements with the Greek national team since taking over in 2001.
With Greece having only reached one FIFA World Cup and one European Championship prior to his arrival, within three years of taking the post Rehhagel had guided the Greeks to EURO glory, before going on to clinch qualification for both EURO 2008 and South Africa 2010.
• Greece will be determined to improve on their showing at USA 1994, where they sank to group-stage defeats against Argentina (4-0), Bulgaria (4-0) and Nigeria (2-0) and headed for home at the first hurdle.
• That competition on United States’ soil was the Greeks’ first and only previous appearance at the finals of a FIFA World Cup.
What they said
“The players have been rewarded for their incredible passion and competitive spirit. We said that before achieving success you need to have the Gods on your side.” Otto Rehhagel, Greece coach.