Georgios Samaras was just a boy when Greece made their one and only FIFA World Cup™ appearance. It does not count among his most vivid or treasured childhood memories. USA 1994 ended for Greece, after all, with three defeats, ten goals conceded and none scored; typical, some say, of the nation's uneasy relationship with football's premier competition.
Failing to reach Germany 2006 just two years after becoming European champions hardly helped to ease this tension, and Samaras remembers only too well that it was a 1-0 home defeat by Ukraine that effectively sealed their fate. Now, four-and-a-half years on, that same fixture is set to be replayed in Athens as the two sides square off in the first leg of their play-off for a place at South Africa 2010. As the Celtic striker, a key member of Greece's flourishing attacking line-up, told FIFA.com: "Maybe it's destiny."
FIFA.com: Georgios, you are in the midst of some important European and domestic games for Celtic right now, but the play-off against Ukraine must be at the back of your mind?
Georgios Samaras: For sure. Deep inside me, it's always there. I know that these games are coming and also how important they are for my country. Being this close to a World Cup is a huge thing, especially for Greece because we have only qualified once before. Sixteen years is a long time and everyone wants to make sure that we are back at this big football party again. It would mean a lot for the country, the people and, of course, for us as players. It would be something that I am sure we would remember for the rest of our lives. What we definitely don't want is to look back after a play-off like this and think, ‘If only I had run more, put in that tackle, won that header or passed that ball better'. It's important that we don't come away with any regrets.
You were the team seeded in the draw but most people are finding it tough to pick a favourite in this one. Can you understand why?
I do, absolutely. It was a good thing for us that were seeded and could avoid the likes of France and Portugal but, for me, Ukraine were one of the toughest teams in that second group. Personally, I think it's 50-50. I think it will come down to who plays and handles the occasion better. Whatever happens, I think you will see a good match between two strong, very evenly-matched teams. I know that we are in a good position right now anyway. We have had some successes, like at EURO 2004 obviously, and also in qualifying for EURO 2008, when we lost only one match, and I think that Greece has done very well in building a really good national team over the past ten years.
Are you concerned about the conditions in Donetsk for the second leg?
They will be tough, I'm sure. I wasn't with Celtic when we played against Shakhtar Donetsk, but I heard a lot of stories from Elano and Nery Castillo (both former Shakhtar players) while I was at Man City about the city and the weather there. From that, I guess there's a good chance there will be snow and that it will be below freezing. But, honestly, I don't believe the weather and the conditions will play a big role in the game. For me, it's going to be about who will be ready, who has the desire and who plays the better football. I hope that's us.
After winning EURO 2004, it must have been a huge blow for Greece not to reach Germany 2006. And obviously Ukraine had their part to play in that...
I was with the Under-21s at the time but I remember being so disappointed when we lost that match. We had a lot of chances but one mistake and it was all over for us. It's funny that it's the same two teams involved this time around, it gives us the chance to put right what happened last time. Who knows? Maybe it's destiny.
You, of course, are playing up front with the top scorer in the European Zone qualifiers, Theofanis Gekas. What's been the secret to his success?
We play a system with three strikers and Gekas as the main targetman, and it's worked extremely well. His record has been just unbelievable, and it's even more incredible because he hasn't been playing much for his club this season. For us, it's great to have a guy like him in your team because you know that, even if he doesn't touch the ball for a long time, or he's having a really bad game, just give him one chance and he will get you a goal.
Tell us about Otto Rehhagel. What is he like as a coach?
The first thing about him is that he is a good, good man. He always protects his players and tries to give us advice not only for football, but for life as well. It's amazing to listen to him sometimes because he is 71 now and has experienced so many things, both in life and in football. As a coach, his reading of the game is outstanding. He was obviously successful in Germany before he came to us and I think everyone appreciates what he has done during this rebirth of the Greek national team.
You mentioned Greece's only previous FIFA World Cup in 1994. What are your memories of that tournament?
I was only nine years old at the time and, actually, my biggest memory about the whole thing was beating Russia in the Olympic stadium to qualify. (Nikos) Machlas scored a header and the whole country went crazy. It was a special moment for everyone. In terms of the World Cup itself, it obviously didn't go too well and I don't really have any great memories. In fact, the only game I really remember watching was Argentina beating us 4-0, with Maradona scoring that great goal.
If you are to qualify this time, someone needs to play the 'Machlas role' and become the hero. Do you fancy yourself for the job?
Honestly, I don't care about being the hero. The only thing that matters is being in South Africa. I will be just as happy if someone else is the hero or we get through with an own goal - just as long as we get there. It's such an important match for us and what I think is probably most important is that we play with passion, but also intelligence. If we could keep a clean sheet in the first game, that would be really good. Even 0-0 wouldn't be a bad result for us. Anything that gives a chance of making it to South Africa.