Theofanis Gekas notched an astonishing ten goals to top the scoring charts in European Zone qualification for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Now the Greek star is hoping to secure his nation's ticket for the finals in next week's play-offs.
However, a testing opponent awaits the UEFA EURO 2004 winners in the form of Ukraine. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Bayer Leverkusen striker spoke about his goal-scoring exploits, the upcoming clash with the eastern Europeans and his situation at club level.
FIFA.com: You're the top scorer in European qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. What does that mean to you?
Theofanis Gekas: It means a lot to me. It's a great personal achievement to have scored the most goals in European qualifying, but I don't play on my own. I have the team to thank, really. Still, it would have been a lot sweeter if we'd qualified for the finals directly.
Where does this potency in front of goal on the international stage come from?
The Greek system is geared towards my game, which helps, as does the quality of my team-mates, who always provide me with excellent service.
At the draw for the play-offs it seemed all the non-seeded teams were hoping to be paired with Greece. Why do you think that was?
Obviously the other teams think we're one of the easier opponents, but you don't win games on reputations. The battle takes place on the pitch, just like it did at EURO 2004. Everyone wanted to play Greece and look what happened there...
In the end you were drawn to play against Ukraine on 14 and 18 November. What do you make of the opposition?
Of course they're going to be difficult opponents - it won't be an easy match. Still, I think we have a good chance, and we control our own destiny. If we perform to the best of our abilities then I'm sure we'll be on the plane to South Africa.
Do you think that the Ukrainians have an advantage having contested a FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off before (in 2001 against Germany)?
No, that doesn't mean a thing. First of all, they lost. Second, they're a completely different side these days with lots of young players. Ukraine don't have any advantages. In fact I see it quite differently - they lack experience; experience that we have in abundance.
Which Ukrainian player do you think poses the greatest threat?
We're not playing against one individual, we need to be wary of the whole team. It's no good singling players out. If we stay focused and play our game, it'll be the Ukrainians who'll need to watch out.
Qualification would mean Greece's second participation at a FIFA World Cup in their history following USA 1994. What would it mean to the Greek people and for you personally to make it to South Africa 2010?
It's always something special for us Greeks to be involved at a major tournament. Of course it would be a huge success for us to make it to South Africa because we failed to qualify for the last three World Cups. Now we have a great chance and it would be pandemonium back home if we made it. For me personally - and I think this goes for every member of our squad - a World Cup appearance would be a massive personal achievement. It doesn't get any better than pitting yourself against the best players in the world.
Things aren't going so smoothly for you at the moment at your club, Bayer Leverkusen. How would you describe your situation there?
Well, there's certainly plenty of competition for places at Leverkusen. We have a lot of very good players and all of them want to be in the team, so you have to take your chance when it comes along. I'm focussing on doing just that and I'm working hard so that when I am called upon, I can deliver. That's what the club expect of me and also what I demand of myself.
In spite of your personal situation, Leverkusen are riding high in the Bundesliga. What do you think the club can achieve this season?
We started really well this term and brought in some quality players. The team gelled really quickly and we all get along well. The balance in the squad is perfect, but the coach has played a big part too. He has all the necessary experience and quality. We could achieve great things with the current crop of players and if we remain focused, I'm sure we'll be up there come the end of the season. We want to qualify for Europe.
You play for very experienced coaches at both club and international level. Are there parallels between Jupp Heynckes and Otto Rehhagel, or are they quite different in their respective approaches?
Every coach has their own philosophy. Otto Rehhagel has a very German approach. He instils typical German values such as discipline and honesty of effort into the team and it's served him very well so far. I think that reflects in the fact that he's the longest-serving national coach we've ever had. He's written sporting history in Greece.
Jupp Heynckes spent a lot of time working in Spain and Portugal and that's been a big influence on him. You can see his Spanish side coming through sometimes. He learnt a lot by managing some of Europe's top clubs and he's a very honourable coach who knows how to treat his players. He always gets the best out of us.