Greece is commonly known as the country of gods and philosophers, bringing to mind towering figures such as Zeus, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato or Hera, but football also has a long tradition in this Mediterranean nation. Historians have discovered that the ancient Greeks played a team sport calledepiskyros, a blend of football and handball, as far back as the early sixth century.
It would certainly be bold to place Dimitrios Salpingidis in the same league as the aforementioned figures, but the 32-year-old managed to etch his name permanently in the history books at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, when he scored Greece’s first ever goal at the global finals in his team’s first World Cup victory, a 2-1 win over Nigeria.
But Salpingidis’ story does not end there. He is also the only Greek player to have found the target at both a World Cup and a UEFA European Championship, and recently climbed into the top four of all-time appearances in the UEFA Europa League.
“Naturally, it’s special for me. I’m very happy and proud of it,” the PAOK striker said modestly when speaking to FIFA.com about his records. “The team is still the most important thing. We win for our country. I don’t think of myself as a hero. I’m a fighter who will do everything for my team. I never intended to break any records.”
A huge football party
Salpingidis’ next goal is to reach new international heights in Brazil three months from now, with Colombia, Japan and Côte d'Ivoire awaiting Greece as Group C opponents. “Of course, my team-mates and I are already very excited,” he explained. “We can’t wait – it’s the biggest and best tournament in the world, and it’ll be a huge football party. Every child dreams of playing at a World Cup.”
The forward continued: “I hope I can enjoy it. We were in South Africa four years ago and won the first World Cup match in our history there, but we went out after the group stage. This time, our aim is to reach the last 16. We’re in a finely balanced group with no major favourites. It won’t be easy, but we can do it.”
Yet Salpingidis, who with four goals from nine games was his country’s second-highest scoring player in qualifying, does not want to hog the spotlight. “I’m nothing special in the team, just a part in the machine,” he stressed. “We don’t have any huge stars; we’re all the same and all have one target.”
To win, you have to score goals
The Greeks are full of confidence, and with good reason, as their surprising triumph at EURO 2004 put the south-eastern European nation on the global footballing map at last. “Greece could be one of the world’s top ten teams,” Salpingidis explained.
“We have built something special over the last few years and have a chance to continue our progress. Our team is a good mix of experienced and younger players, and that’s exactly what you need to be successful.”
A quick look at the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking confirms his observation; in fact, coach Fernando Santos’ team have been within touching distance of the top ten for several years now. The PAOK striker, who made his international debut in 2005, also dismissed criticism of the Greeks’ play as destructive and overly defensive, explaining that although well organised with a solid defence, there is more to their game.
“We have the quality to score at any point,” he said, before adding: “To win, you have to score goals.” Even the greatest Greek philosopher would find it tough to argue against that.
Salpingidis refused to reveal his tip for the World Cup title, as he has no clear favourites, but named the usual suspects like hosts Brazil, defending champions Spain and Germany as among those in the running.
“Nobody thought we could win the European Championship in 2004, but it happened," he went on, refusing to rule out Greece’s chances either. "It was the greatest success in Greek footballing history. We’ll give it our all [to repeat it].”
And if the Greeks pull off this seemingly impossible achievement, they will have more than earned their place alongside Zeus, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and Hera.