After productive spells in charge at the likes of Werder Bremen, Kaiserslautern and Bayern Munich, German supremo Otto Rehhagel became Greece head coach in August 2001. There have been setbacks along the way, but also unprecedented success in the nine years he has been at the Hellenic helm.
Rehhagel, now 71 years of age, was unable to lead his new charges to the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ in Japan and Korea, but he was the architect of the greatest triumph in the 84-year history of the Greek association just two years later. Unfancied Greece were shock winners at UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal, an Angelos Charisteas goal proving enough to beat the host nation in the final.
You win nothing with kids
Rehhagel amply demonstrated his preference for experience over youth at the time, building his side round a nucleus of Antonios Nikopolidis (33), defenders Michalis Kapsis (30) and Panagiotis Fyssas (31), midfielders Theodoros Zagorakis (32) and Stelios Ginnakopoulos (30), and target man Zisis Vryzas (30).
Qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany proved beyond them, but the south Europeans did claim a spot at UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. Rehhagel largely stuck to his principle of favouring the tried and trusted, fielding the third-oldest squad at the tournament after Italy and Sweden.
Antonios Nikopolidis (37), defenders Paraskevas Antzas (31) and Traianos Dellas (32), and midfield duo Angelos Basinas (32) and Georgios Karagounis (31) all started the Greeks’ opening match against the equally venerable Tre Kronor from Sweden.
However, on this occasion, Rehhagel’s plan backfired spectacularly. His team lost all three group matches at the European showdown, conceding five goals and scoring just once, and slunk off home with precisely nothing to show for their efforts.
Consistent and resolute
Ignoring a storm of media criticism and disquiet among the fans, the association chose to stick with Rehhagel, and were eventually rewarded for their faith. In a qualifying play-off for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, the Greeks squeezed past favourites Ukraine to claim their second-ever berth at the global showdown.
The obvious goal now is to emulate the successful recipe from 2004. A decade earlier, at the 1994 tournament in the USA, the nation of 11 million sent a team to the FIFA World Cup for the first time. There was to be no dream debut, however, as they packed for home after the group phase - a fate they will be desperate to avoid in South Africa.
Rehhagel and his troops are in Group B with 1986 world champions Argentina and 1996 Olympic Football Tournament winners Nigeria, who were also opponents in the first group stage at the 1994 event. The section is completed by Korea Republic, who finished fourth at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, so the Europeans face an uphill task. But Rehhagel, named 'Greek of the Year' in 2004, has no intention of departing from his preferred selection policies, and will again go for experience in South Africa.
League of veterans
The core of the side which contested qualifying is in the over-30 category. Theofanis Gekas (30) was the top scorer in the European Zone preliminaries ahead of South Africa 2010 with ten goals, while keeper Konstantinos Chalkias, who will be 36 by the time the tournament opens, kept goal in eight qualifying fixtures.
Big defenders Sotirios Kyrgiakos (30) and Christos Patsatzoglou (31) featured eleven and eight times respectively, with captain Georgios Karagounis (33) and Konstantinos Katsouranis (30) pulling the strings in midfield. Back-up for the prolific Gekas is provided by none other than EURO 2004 hero Charisteas (30).
The burden of responsibility within the team undoubtedly falls on the foursome of keeper Chalkias, rock-solid centre-back Kyrgiakos, schemer Karagounis, and striker Gekas.
Four in the spotlight
The PAOK Thessalonica shot-stopper has spent almost all his career on home soil, leaving only temporarily in 2005 and 2006 for brief sojourns in England with Portsmouth, and in Spain with Real Murcia, although he was unable to achieve first-choice status at either foreign club. South Africa 2010 will be Chalkias’s third major tournament after the EURO 2004 and EURO 2008, where he was a squad player.
At the heart of the defence in front of the 35-year-old keeper, Kyrgiakos is responsible for marshalling a rearguard comprising four or five men depending on the opposition. The muscular 1.93m defender joined Glasgow giants Rangers in 2005, moving on to Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany and AEK Athens, before taking his aerial prowess to the Premier League and Liverpool, where he is under contract until 2011.
Playmaker Karagounis takes charge of midfield organisation and distribution. A EURO 2004 winner, he rates as the thoughtful tactician in the team, and boasts a good record of success at club level, with Panathinaikos in his home country, and with Inter Milan in Serie A, and Lisbon outfit Benfica in Portugal.
And if Gekas can maintain his impressive strike rate from the qualifying campaign once the action starts for real, the Greeks must have a genuine chance of making the last sixteen at a FIFA World Cup for the first time.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: "The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most." Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Rehhagel has seen, heard and learned what can be achieved with experienced players. The Greece line-up for their opening match against Korea Republic on 12 June in Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth is bound to be brimming with the wisdom and acumen of age.