Ioannis Amanatidis, a player who leads a forward line with all the gritty determination and passion of an old-time centre-forward, has long been regarded as an iconic hero by the raucous Eintracht Frankfurt crowd. The fans adore the Greek hitman, whose untamed hair and straggling beard give him the look of a warrior of antiquity, for his pride and tireless commitment to the cause.
There is no disputing the 28-year-old's charisma, nor his instinct for goal. Born in the north of Greece, but brought up in Stuttgart from the age of nine after his parents chose to live in Germany, Amanatidis is quite literally at home in the Bundesliga. His 177 top flight appearances have yielded 54 goals to date, a fine record gilded by his permanent willingness to go to the limit for the team. All these qualities come to the fore when Amanatidis represents his country of birth, and he is preparing to redouble his efforts in the quest for a place in South Africa next summer.
After failing to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and a sub-standard exit at the first hurdle at UEFA EURO 2008, the surprise 2004 European champions yearn for a shot at the global crown in 2010. However, the side led by veteran coach Otto Rehhagel have made life difficult for themselves in qualifying for the 2010 finals. In European Group 2, Amanatidis and Co can no longer dislodge leaders Switzerland from top spot without favourable results elsewhere.
Driven by passion
The Greeks must now beat Latvia and Luxembourg at home to ensure a place in the play-offs at a minimum. "We have to win both games. It's got to be possible, because we have home advantage. If we fail, and miss out on South Africa as a result, we won't have deserved a place at the finals," Amanatidis exclusively told FIFA.com, typically declining to mince words. In any case, those who know the striker recognise he will not have wasted a second contemplating failure.
Missing out on the FIFA World Cup finals for the second time in a row would be a nightmare for the football-crazy Greeks. "The fans would be just as disappointed as the players, but I'm just not thinking about anything like that," he declared. Instead, the lithe and superbly fit athlete is convinced he and his national team-mates have what it takes to hold their own against the best in the world. They also boast a coach who has seen it all before. "Rehhagel is exceptionally experienced, and refuses to be distracted by swings in attitudes towards the team. He's his own man, he's straight as a die and honest. Without him, Greek football wouldn't be where it is today on the international scene."
In the light of four wins, two draws, and two narrow defeats to the Swiss, who lead the section by three points as a result, it is harsh to describe the Greeks' qualifying campaign as poor. Rehhagel's team are level on points with the Latvians but lie second on goal difference. However, the unexpected continental triumph five years ago means the bar is set much higher these days. "The expectations are naturally much greater. Obviously, it was a huge surprise when we won EURO 2004, but it didn't stop the fans in Greece setting their sights higher than before. We ceased being underdogs, and started being dark horses."
Immune to pressure
However, Amanatidis is a realist. "The heightened expectations are understandable, but they're totally wide of the mark. The EURO, the World Cup - you have to fight your way to major finals every single time, because at this level, there are hardly any easy opponents any more. At the end of the day, the smallest details make the difference between going to a major tournament or missing out." One detail which could make a difference in this case is goal difference, especially if it goes to the wire for the play-off spot. The Eintracht striker knows he would normally be judged by his goals - but he has just three in 34 appearances for his country, and none at all in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
However, Amanatidis will not be knocked out of his stride that easily, especially as Rehhagel has often played him in the hole behind a target man. "I'm immune to pressure! In any case, I don't think it'll come down to goals. If we finish on 20 points, it really should be enough to finish second without resorting to goal difference." That will be music to the ears of the supporters in Greece, spoken by a man who truly embodies the notion of national pride. "I've been part of the national set-up for a long time now, and provided I can avoid injury, I think I'm ready for more responsibility. I definitely believe I could take on a leading position within the dressing room hierarchy."
Athens provides the stage for Amanatidis to advance his ambitions on all fronts. Rehhagel and his men entertain Latvia in the capital on 10 October, before Luxembourg provide the opposition in the same city four days later. After that match, the Greeks will know whether they have booked a direct qualifying spot in South Africa, face a trial by play-off, or whether their FIFA World Cup dream has crumbled to dust. Whatever the outcome, the Eintracht faithful will welcome their warrior-like leader back to Frankfurt and the famous red-and-black jersey, regardless of his exploits in the white and blue of his country.