There can be no doubt that taking part in a FIFA World Cup™ is special is so many ways. For Greece coach Fernando Santos it is no exception, with the Portugal-born supremo revelling in guiding his side to Brazil 2014 for a number of compelling reasons.
Chief among these is the fact that, despite being edged to top spot in European Zone Group G on goal difference by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece shrugged off any disappointment to overcome play-off rivals Romania and bring joy to their crisis-stricken nation.
What is more, as you can see for yourself in the video above, there comes the added bonus of the shared history between Portugal and Brazil, as well as the challenge of coaxing greater attacking flair from his resilient charges.
FIFA.com: Greece’s qualifying campaign proved a gruelling affair, with your side having to negotiate a play-off against Romania [winning 4-2 on aggregate] despite an impressive points tally. How frustrating was that for you?
Fernando Santos: If you’d offered me 25 points beforehand I’d have signed on the dotted line there and then. I thought that 25 points would be enough to finish first and qualify directly [for Brazil 2014]. We qualified for the EURO with 24, for instance. And so, yes, there was a certain period of disappointment but, at the same time, we were confident we had what it took to get through the play-offs and make it to Brazil.
Which, in your view, were the toughest moments during qualifying?
Definitely the two games against Bosnia [and Herzegovina], particularly the away game which we lost [3-1]. We weren’t used to losing in qualifying. In 20 qualifying games since I took charge, that one in Bosnia is the only time we’ve lost, so it was quite tough to take. We also knew they were unlikely to drop many points and that the group would be fiercely contested right to the end. But, anyway, the most important thing was to make sure the team never lost its belief. Even though it was a more difficult period, we were still able to lift the players’ morale because we created the right conditions to do so, with an unwavering belief that we’d make it to Brazil.
How hard was it to get that message across to the players and particularly the supporters, to prevent disappointment or even fear taking hold?
Happily for us, for the past year or two, particularly since the last EURO [when Greece reached the last eight], the Greek fans have really been flocking to games, which didn’t used to happen. So, we’ve been playing in packed stadiums, which does wonders for our confidence. I think the national team and the Greek people really identify with each other right now which, given the current crisis, is something the country needs. The people have real faith in the national side and in the players – in their level of commitment. There’s been no ‘divorce’, on the contrary in fact, the bond between the fans and the national side has grown ever stronger.
What went through your mind come the end of the play-off tie, once Greece’s passage to Brazil was safely in the bag?
I was absolutely overjoyed, both for myself and particularly for the players. We were all feeling that joy, sharing it as one. It was so important for Greece to be part of this event. It’s very important right now for Greece to win things, to be successful in some shape or form, to try and lift collective morale and self-esteem.
Now that mission is accomplished, what can we expect next from your team? What’s the prevailing philosophy within the camp?
We’ve got our own way of doing things and we know that we’re very difficult to beat. Since I’ve been in charge we’ve played 43 matches and only lost four, though we’re also aware we sometimes struggle to score goals. The play-off matches were different, all-or-nothing, and the players took that mind-set on board. It’s like I said to them beforehand: ‘Play-offs aren’t for playing, they’re for winning.’
Is there, however, a desire to alter that way of playing?
It’s difficult. At club level you get to work with the players every day. That way you can instil your own ideas, the ones you believe in most, and get the team pressing higher up and winning possession back from the opposition – but that’s something which needs a lot of work in training. At some clubs I’ve managed to do it in a month, whereas at others it’s taken three or four. At international level it’s difficult, so I’ve also had to adjust my philosophy to the style the Greek national team has had since winning the EURO in Portugal in 2004. It’s a team which very much has its own identity. It’s not a very attacking one, with a tendency to play a lower-tempo game and wait for the chance to counter-attack. That’s something we’ve tried to change and I think that things are indeed changing, particularly if you look at our performance in friendlies. When it comes to competitive matches, though, it’s always that much harder [to change the approach], as the players feel more comfortable when sitting deeper.
For our final question, how far do you feel Greece can realistically aim to go in Brazil?
We’re definitely aiming to get through the group phase, which is something Greece have never achieved at the World Cup. That’s the dream. We’re aiming to get off to a winning start and also try and slightly change the image people have of Greek football. If we can do that, I think we’re in with a chance of getting through the group phase [Editor’s note: Greece are in Group C alongside Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire and Japan]. After that, it’s about taking things one game at a time. One thing’s for sure: we’re not going to Brazil just to see the sights.