You only have to look at Giorgos Karagounis’s career achievements to appreciate his lofty status in Greek football. A UEFA EURO 2004 winner, he has also claimed domestic league and cup titles with Panathinaikos, as well as a Coppa Italia with Inter Milan and a Portuguese Super Cup while at Benfica.
With the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ coming up fast, FIFA.com found the Pana and Greece captain in determined mood as he discussed the challenges ahead. The battle-hardened Karagounis is aware of the excitement and sense of expectation his nation's qualification for the tournament has aroused among their supporters.
Under veteran coach Otto Rehhagel, the Greeks have qualified for the big event for only the second time in their history, some 16 years after their fleeting appearance at USA 1994. Though aware of Greece’s limitations and cautious about their chances, Karagounis believes that modest record and their underdog status are factors that could work in their favour. “Nobody expected us to do anything at the EURO in 2004 and we went out and won it,” he said.
Hungry for more, the experienced midfielder sees no reason why he and his team-mates cannot advance to the Round of 16 and beyond in South Africa, though he recognises that Group B rivals Argentina present a formidable threat.
“They are favourites not just to qualify as group winners but to go and win the tournament as well," he said. “Nigeria and Korea Republic [the two other sides in Group B] might look weaker than Argentina on paper but they have a lot more World Cup experience than us."
Yet, as Karagounis explains, they will be drawing inspiration from their exploits at UEFA EURO 2004. “We were in the same group as hosts Portugal, Spain and Russia,” he explained.
“We beat Portugal, drew with Spain and lost to Russia, who were supposedly the weakest team. That just shows you there are no easy sides out there. The least you can do is fight, and that’s what we’ll be doing out on the pitch.”
If Greece are to make an impact, they will need to get their preparations just right and focus on the areas where they need to improve. “We play a very defensive game,” acknowledged the 32-year-old. “We need to concentrate on attacking a little more.”
It was a lack of punch up front that put paid to Greek hopes at USA 1994, where they failed to score a single goal in their three group games - a record that Karagounis is intent on improving in South Africa. “We need to try and enjoy ourselves, just as we did in the qualifiers,” he said.
"We can’t wait for the World Cup to start. We are a small country and we don’t have that many players to choose from. Everyone is important in the side. The most essential thing is that we keep on sticking together like a family. That unity will help us improve.”
In a side lacking obvious stars, captain Karagounis is happy to be just another member of the team and is quick to play down any starring role he might have, even though he has collected more caps than anyone aside from fellow midfielder Angelos Basinas.
“The young players who come into the side are very keen and sometimes we have to put them right on a few things," he said. "We all do that, though. We’re a team first and foremost and there are other players with as much experience as me.”
As he counts down the days to South Africa 2010, the Greek idol cannot contain his excitement at the event and is sure the first FIFA World Cup finals to be staged on African soil will be a success. Tipping the hosts to do well on the pitch, he also names his favourites for the trophy: “Argentina, Italy, Spain, who are the strongest side around, and England.”
The Greeks begin what they hope will be a long South African odyssey against Korea Republic in Port Elizabeth on 12 June. Cooling pre-tournament optimism, the wily Karagounis assures that is as far ahead as they are looking for now. “Our objective is the opening game. After that we’ll see what happens,” he concluded.