As far as Greece coach Otto Rehhagel is concerned, the fact his side went into their final game in Group B with a genuine chance of progressing to the Round of 16 is a cause for celebration in itself: “Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Croatia aren’t even here so I’d like to congratulate my team once again. They couldn’t have given any more.”
Those valedictory words came after the German veteran had seen his side go down 2-0 to Argentina in Polokwane, a result that spelled the end of their participation at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Yet though the Greeks are heading home earlier than they would have liked, they at least managed to improve on their showing at their only previous appearance in the world finals. Pointless and goalless at USA 1994, the Pirate Ship looked far more at home on the big stage this time around, collecting a win against Nigeria and causing problems for the mighty Albiceleste.
Taking stock of his side’s performances over the last few days, goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas believes they have every reason to be satisfied: “In 1994 we didn’t score a single goal and conceded ten, and the new generation wanted to erase memories of that. To get over the disappointment of the first game and answer the criticism that came our way - some of it justified - was very rewarding and we achieved something we can be proud of.”
Pride there may be at their recovery, although the Greeks know full well they missed a trick in losing their group opener to Korea Republic, a defeat that came with a very high price according to Rehhagel.
“In a league competition you have time to work on and improve lots of things but you can’t do that in a World Cup,” continued Rehhagel. “If you make a mistake you pay dearly for it and that’s what happened to us in our opening game. But the boys played really well overall and were completely committed.”
Greece’s misfortune was to come up against the toughest side in the group in their most important game. And though they mounted a fierce rearguard action, they could not contain the potent Argentinian strike force for the full 90 minutes.
“We defended really well for most of the game but it’s extremely difficult to play against footballers of such a high standard,” commented Tzorvas. “They’re the strongest side in the tournament so far, and we tried to stand up to the challenge and do the very best we could.”
“We can leave with our heads held high,” said fellow squad member Alexandros Tziolis. “When you play against a team that strong the only thing you can really do is defend as well as you can and try and hit on the counter whenever possible.”
On the bright side for Rehhagel’s men, they can voyage home safe in the knowledge that they have set a new FIFA World Cup finals landmark for Greek football, a possible springboard for future success, starting with the upcoming qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2012.