The Greek climb continues
© AFP

Anyone who loves a good footballing fairytale still harks back to the summer of 2004 when, with a combination of will-power and never-say-die attitude, Otto Rehhagel's unheralded Greek side scaled the summits of European football to win UEFA EURO 2004. Four years on from their heroics in Portugal, only one thing has changed: they are now no longer cast in the role of the underdog.

The countdown to this summer's continental finals, which will be held in Switzerland and Austria from 7 to 29 June, is well underway and Greece appear a force to be reckoned with. "The EURO 2008 will most likely see the strongest Greek squad of all time," said Bolton Wanderers midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos proudly.

Pride and confidence are very much Greek traits, and they are currently more than justified. With the 69-year-old Rehhagel at the reins, they beat hosts Portugal in both the opening match of EURO 2004 and the final, by 1-0 and 2-1 scorelines respectively. They have since made it three out of three with a 2-1 win over Luis Felipe Scolari's side in a friendly in Dusseldorf last March, thanks to a brace from Georgios Karagounis - a result which once again made footballing experts sit up and take note.

"Portugal have recently beaten Brazil twice, and that shows what a strong team they are," said 31-year-old Karagounis after the match. And the Panathinaikos player knows that this series of wins over a Portugal team whom many regard among the favourites for gold at EURO 2008 has earned Greece a lot of respect.

It has also earned them something more concrete. The latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking has seen Greece move up from tenth to eighth spot, overtaking Portugal as well as the Netherlands, who recently flattered to deceive in a 4-3 friendly win over Austria. The Greeks are thus as high as they have ever been since the Ranking was introduced.

Greece were already celebrating last February after cracking the top ten for the first time. April saw them increase their tally by 27 points, which propelled them up to eighth and made them the sixth-best European team on the ladder.

The team is the star
The secret to their success, according to Giannakopoulos, is that "we're quite simply a well organised team and we all work for one another". Since Rehhagel took over in August 2001, a tightly knit squad has developed, with the team progressing steadily until their surprise triumph at EURO 2004. Despite the fact that they have no stand-out players, Greece have assembled a squad which is so much more than the sum of its individual components and capable of playing exciting football.

Not qualifying for the World Cup in Germany made us even stronger
Greece coach Otto Rehhagel

Not that it has been all plain sailing, but even the low points have helped the team in their development. When Greece missed out on qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, many thought that the glory days were over. Rehhagel did not agree. " ," he recently told FIFA.com.

Since 'King Otto' took over, the current European champions have a record of 40 wins, 18 draws and 19 defeats. A few days after the friendly win over Portugal in Dusseldorf, it took Rehhagel and the Greek Football Association all of 25 minutes to come to an agreement on extending the coach's contract until 2010 - a decision met with universal approval from the country's football-crazy inhabitants.

It will, of course, be very interesting to see how well Greece fare at the EURO 2008. They proved four years ago that they are capable of going all the way, and of their group opponents, only Spain are ahead of them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking (Russia and Sweden will complete Group D).

The Greeks are therefore one of the favourites to reach the knockout phase, although the players refuse to put themselves under any pressure. "Were just looking forward to really enjoying ourselves at the EURO," said Karagounis.

And while this may sound a little unambitious, who is to say that there is not another chapter left in this particular footballing fairytale.