With a population of roughly 11m, Greece is a small nation that has dramatically punched above its weight in football. Football has always vied with basketball for the nation’s affections, but 2004 proved to be a watershed year in the history of sport in the country. The Olympic Games came to Athens bringing with it a huge increase in funding for sporting facilities throughout the city, and the Greeks’ surprise triumph in Euro 2004 saw a vast resurgence in the popularity of football. As a result the national side now carries the burden of high and probably unrealistic expectation.
Although the Greek football league has an entrenched Athenian big three of AEK, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, Olympiacos have won 12 of the last 13 titles and the last time the trophy moved to the provinces was when Larissa triumphed in 1988. There is evidence that domestic football in Greece is getting stronger as for the past three seasons the Super League has been represented in the Champions League knock-out stage. However, Greek domestic teams struggle to make much of an impact when they come up against their richer opponents from the more lucrative European Leagues. However, the league’s comparative strength to those of Greece’s Balkan neighbours means about two thirds of the Greek national squad ply their trade domestically, mostly in Athens, with a small scattering plying their trade abroad in Germany, Italy and the UK.
This will only be the fourth time Greece have competed in a major international tournament, yet to the general bemusement of just about everyone they managed to win Euro 2004, overcoming France and Portugal – twice – along the way. Their World Cup record could not be much worse, their only appearance being at USA 94, where they lost their three group games to Argentina, Nigeria and Bulgaria, conceding 10 goals and failing to find the net even once.
Greece entered the 2010 tournament through the back-door route of the play-offs, after finishing second in their qualifying group behind Switzerland. After winning their first three qualifying matches, the Greeks went on a dismal run, losing twice to the Swiss and failing to beat both Israel and Moldova. Home wins over Latvia and Luxembourg meant that they narrowly beat Latvia into second place and were charitably given a seeding for the play-offs and drawn against Ukraine, overcoming them 1-0 on aggregate. They play their home games in the Olympic Stadium, Athens, a vast arena holding more than 70,000 people with a usually excellent pitch – the stadium capacities in South Africa will therefore not cause a problem, but the potentially lower-quality pitches might.
Greece currently lies in a flattering 12th place in the FIFA world rankings and travel to the World Cup without much hope of making an impact. They have been drawn in a group startlingly similar to the one they faired so dismally in during USA 94, coming up against Argentina and Nigeria again whilst their opening game comes against Korea Republic.
Much credit for Greece’s qualification for the World Cup should be given to Theofanis Gekas. The 30-year-old striker finished as top scorer in the European Qualification section with 10 goals in as many starts, with four alone coming in the Greeks’ 5-2 triumph over Latvia. The player has had his troubles at club level, playing just one minute for Tony Adams’ Portsmouth side and constantly struggling to make an impact with Bayer Leverkusen, yet he has found consistent form in international football and will need to be at the top of his game if his side are to stand any chance.
The Greeks are managed by German Coach Otto Rehhagel who is now their longest-serving manager. Having won two Bundesliga titles and a Cup Winners Cup with Werder Bremen, he took on the Greece job in 2001, qualified for Euro 2004 before astonishing the world of football by winning the tournament. He has turned Greece into a rigorous defensive unit, usually adopting a rigid 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1 formation with huge emphasis on set-pieces. Their success at the Euros was partly due to Rehhagel deploying an old-fashioned man-marking system with a sweeper which most teams had forgotten how to counter. They relied heavily on the element of surprise but since then teams have learnt how to deal with their ultra-defensive approach and they failed to win a game in Euro 2008.