European champions in 2004, you might expect Greece to have a somewhat richer FIFA World Cup™ pedigree than three defeats from three outings and no goals scored on their only previous appearance on world football’s biggest stage. Yet that is exactly what happened to the hapless Hellenics at USA 1994, a fact which makes Otto Rehhagel’s charges determined to set the record straight at South Africa 2010.
And though his side are often criticized for their defensive approach, To Piratiko (The Pirate Ship) will certainly not be easily sunk under the guidance of ‘King Otto’, whose regal status in Greek football was cemented by that triumph at UEFA EURO 2004. “My assistant and I work to our players’ strengths,” the German supremo said in an exclusive interview with FIFA. “It’s true we don’t score enough goals, and that’s something we have to improve, but it’s not easy.”
Fortunately Greece have a potent weapon in their armoury come the finals, where they have been drawn in Group B alongside Nigeria, Korea Republic and Argentina, in the shape of their ten-goal top scorer in European Zone qualifying: Theofanis Gekas.
“The whole team helped me to score those goals. I think the most important thing now is that we all hit good form and keep creating scoring opportunities,” said the front-man, who former international team-mate Ioannis Amanatidis once dismissed as lacking both the shooting ability and physical strength to thrive at the highest level.
“All three games are equally important and all our group opponents are a difficult proposition. I think we’ll have to be patient in each match and wait for the right time to strike.”
In determined mood
Another key figure in Rehhagel’s tactical plan is feisty forward Dimitrios Salpingidis, scorer of the crucial goal against Ukraine that booked Greece’s finals ticket via the play-offs. “It was the most important goal I’ve ever scored,” said the Panathinaikos man, who will also be buoyed by a league and cup double on the domestic front this campaign.
“That’s great for morale, but a World Cup is completely different. What we’ve achieved in Greece is no guarantee of success in South Africa, because, of course, the level is higher. That said, it is a psychological boost.”
Also keen to share the attacking burden are Georgios Samaras, Pantelis Kapetanos and Angelos Charisteas, scorer of the winning goal against hosts Portugal in the final of EURO 2004. Could the hero of Lisbon be the one to write another page in Greek football history? Only time, and the events of their opening encounter against Korea Republic on 12 June in Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, will tell.