Ever since they stunned the footballing world by triumphing at UEFA EURO 2004, Greece have been synonymous with a distinct brand of football. Robust, organised and stoutly defensive, they have proved a frustrating safe to crack for many a team that have opposed them since.
They did struggle to reach the heights of those heady days in Portugal as Otto Rehhagel's nine-year reign as coach drew to a close – ending as they finished bottom of their group at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Since then, however, Fernando Santos has enlivened the Greek spirit after taking the wheel of * To Piratiko (The Pirate Ship) following Rehhagel's departure. Nonetheless, the Portuguese tactician told *FIFA **that he is well aware of the football identity his side has come to embrace as a result of their proudest moment.
“The history of Greek football over the last few years derives a great deal from what was achieved in 2004, with that huge victory," Santos said. "Since then, the players have felt somehow comfortable playing in a particular pattern,” he added, emphasising that passion, will, determination and courage are the core elements that fuel their footballing ideology.
“Lately, we've been trying to progress from that pattern, but it's very hard especially at national team level, since there aren't many training sessions. We haven't had much time to work as a group, so it's not easy to change these patterns and the team's habits.”
While there may be loud echoes of Rehhagel's era, with the talismanic Georgios Karagounis, Konstantinos Katsouranis and Theofanis Gekas still key figures in the camp, the winds of change are afoot. Konstantinos Mitroglou was undoubtedly one of the stars of European qualifying for Brazil 2014 and the midfield Panagiotis pair of Tachtsidis and Kone provide some explosive promise.
I think that we also deserve some respect from our opponents. There's no shadow of a doubt that these days nobody considers Greece an easy opponent.
This is where Santos is trying to mould his own imprint on the side, having worked hard to not discard almost a decade of development which has seen Greece reach four successive major tournaments, as he attempts to add flair to the functionality of old. “What we can say is that the team today is a mixture of the 2004 team and a team that also tries to make chances when it has possession and make chances when it's attacking with some quality in offence,” the former Benfica and Porto coach explained. “I think that we also deserve some respect from our opponents. There's no shadow of a doubt that these days nobody considers Greece an easy opponent.”
Those who will be trying extinguish the Greek passion are a trio of teams that make up an exciting and unpredictable Group C, with first Colombia, then Japan and Côte d’Ivoire set to challenge the Aegean side. It is arguably one of the hardest sections in Brazil to call, with all four entitled to argue why they should pick up one of the two allotted tickets to the last 16.
As Greece enter a second successive World Cup for the first time, the quartet are too close to separate on paper in Santos's mind, and how each side sets up on the day will be what tips the finely-balanced scales. “It's a very open group, a group where anything could happen. Four teams of similar quality, in my view, and it will depend a great deal on how each team is feeling in the moment in each game, both the whole team together and how each player is feeling individually.”
Now nearing the end of his fourth year in charge, Santos is well aware of Greece's strengths and limitations, and concedes that they cannot triumph without acutely acknowledging their opponents' capabilities. With that in mind, his ethos for how he wants his side to perform in Brazil encapsulates his approach of evolution, rather than revolution that has defined his reign. Simply put, Santos outlined what he expects: “Confidence, but at the same time humility and realism.”