“Greece have come on really well in recent years. Our goal is to continue the exceptional work put in by my predecessor," said Fernando Santos when he took over from Otto Rehhagel as the nation's head coach in July 2010. After nine years at the helm, the 71-year-old Rehhagel stepped down in the wake of his side's early exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. The veteran German boss led the Greeks to their greatest ever triumph in 2004, when they won the UEFA EURO in Portugal as rank outsiders.
In the year since Portuguese supremo Santos took the reins, his plan has started to bear fruit, with seven wins and five draws in 12 matches since the FIFA World Cup. The men in blue and white have been on the fringes of the top ten in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for many months now.
“The coach always plays a decisive role in a successful team, and that's definitely the case with Fernando Manuel Santos," said 20-times capped Greece international Sokratis Papastathopoulos in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. "However, certain rules apply both to success and failure: the coach himself can't score goals and can't prevent them either. It's always a question of the team as a whole, and we've assembled a very good one."
Action in Athens, Genoa, Milan and Bremen
“It all simply came together at the European Championship in 2004. The team defended extremely well, and we took our chances when they came," continued the player. "It's obviously going to be very, very difficult to repeat a success like that, but it's not for nothing that people say anything can happen in football."
The 23-year-old is enjoying a run of success both with the national team and at club level. After spells with AEK Athens, Genoa and AC Milan, he is currently out on loan with German Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen.
“My initial impressions are very good. I've been given a wonderful reception here in Bremen, and I like the look of the city. And even before my first match against Kaiserslautern, I knew the Bundesliga was one of the best leagues in Europe. The only thing I have to fix is that I haven't found anywhere to live yet," he said with a grin.
“I've learned important things everywhere I've been, in Athens, Genoa and Milan, and that’s helped me with my career. I've not moved on just for the sake of moving, but to develop as a player and to secure regular football. But obviously, I could also imagine staying at a particular club for a longer period, although everything would need to fall into place. That's very much the case at Werder for the time being, although I'm initially only here for this season on loan. I'll do my best to help the team and come on as a footballer, and everything else will follow automatically."
Papastathopoulos had an unforgettable season with I Rossoneri last term, as the men from Milan claimed the Serie A title. The player lined up alongside icons of the game such as Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, “and being on a team with players of this class was a great honour for me. It goes without saying I benefited from their experience. I watched and learned a great deal."
The Kalamata-born defender first came to the attention of a wider audience at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He was unable to prevent his country’s 2–0 defeat to Argentina in their final group match, sealing their early elimination from the tournament, but the game was still a personal success for the player.
Rehhagel assigned him no less a task than man-marking FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, but Papastathopoulos mastered the challenge expertly. “Messi is comfortably the best player in the world, because he does absolutely everything faster than any other player on the planet. But I wouldn't describe the game as a highlight, rather as a very good experience for me."
Sokratis or just Papas
It could also be extremely useful experience for the future. At the present time, Greece are undefeated in EURO 2012 qualifying and lie top of Group F, with every prospect of sealing a direct qualifying berth for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
After that, the Greeks will turn their attention to qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, where they have been grouped with Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Appearing at a World Cup is every player's dream, and that obviously goes for me too. I reckon it's a manageable qualifying group, although every game will be close. But we believe in our strengths, and we'll do everything in our power to be part of the World Cup in 2014."
Before releasing the likeable defender to resume his focus on forthcoming challenges with Bremen and Greece, FIFA.com quizzed the player on his lengthy and, for many folk without a background in the Greek language, hard-to-pronounce surname.
“You have to set a challenge for reporters from time to time," he declared with a smile. “But in all seriousness, the name on the back of my shirt is Sokratis, which you could describe as my stage name. And my nickname is Papas. I don't think anyone will have any trouble with that."