Have Greece been the worst team in the 2010 world cup after the first round of matches? Their insipid performance against Korea hardly offers an argument. Let us take take a comparative look between the memorable class of 2004 & the present class of 2010 to see what has made such a difference…
When Euro 2004 was around the corner, the world was talking about England, Portugal and the Netherlands as potential champions. Germany and France, both were given an outside chance. Portugal, coached by world cup winner Luis Felipe Scolari, possessed a skillful youngster called Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks. They were expected to make light-work of their opponent, Greece, who were yet to win a game in a big tournament. Greece surprised with their physical approach and took a shock lead through Giorgos Karagounis. The Portuguese crowd still expected their team to win.
As the match progressed the crowd became more and more restless. The Greeks were slowly turning into an unbreakable barrier. If the movie 300 had come out at that time, anyone would have likened to Portuguese attack to the waves of Persian soldiers being repelled by Spartans. Then, the unthinkable happened, the minnows took a 2-0 lead when Angelos Basinas converted a spot kick early in the second half. The signs were, now, ominous. Portugal might have had well over half an hour to get back into the game but they never looked like breaking down an incredibly strong Greek defence. A late penalty changed nothing as Greece shocked the world with a 2-1 win.
The world press was of course dismissive. Greece’s win was likened to Senegal or Korea’s shocks in the world cup two years before. Their tactics were derided as negative and boring. Nobody gave them a chance to go further in the tournament. Spain came up and were unable to beat the Greeks. Despite trailing 1-0, Greece came back strongly to make it 1-1. It was after this game that the fans came to know about Greece’s amazing 1-0 win away to Spain in qualifiers and how they topped the group ahead of Spain and Ukraine. A look at their qualifying statistics cleared up their approach. They had scored 8 goals in 8 games, letting in just four. They reached round 2 at the expense of Russia and Spain. They were still played down as a minor party-pooper.
How to win the Greek way…Charisteas scores in the final….
Defending champions France with Zidane, Henry and Trezeguet were expected to romp past them in round-2. But for once, the French maestro looked completely devoid of ideas. The French had successfully broken Cannavaro– Nesta–Maldini’s defence in Euro 2000, but the Greek defence had risen to an even greater height. And the unthinkable happened, when Angelos Charisteas rose up to head in a goal. You knew that was it, Greece would not be broken. And they were not.
Grudging words of praise were finally coming in. But like before, a team with good defence was unnecessarily damned for being shabby and unimaginative. Greece didn’t get the credit they deserved. Coach Otto Rehhagel was already a legend in his homeland Germany. He led Kaiserslautern to a unique Bundesliga title win in their first season in top division.
In the semi-finals they played Czech Republic, the most attacking team in the tournament at that point. Although the Czechs were hit by the loss of Nedved due to an injury just before half-time, they continued to push. The Greek defence as expected held firm and they countered with fast, intelligent patterns, never allowing Czechs to settle down. After a goal-less regulation time, centre-back Traianos Dellas rose to head in a corner at the near post to score a silver goal in the dying seconds, and earn another 1-0 win.
What made Greece watertight in Euro…
Ottocles, as he was called in Greece now, had taken Aristotle’s principle word by word – “Whole is greater than sum of its parts”. None of the Greek players would get into anyone’s ‘Dream Team’, but together, they were unbeatable. Rehhagel modeled his team on the basic German strengths, being well organized and physically fit. Greece changed its defensive tactics according to the team it played. A strong man-to-man marking was always present and the players covered each other beautifully.
Full-backs Seitaridis and Fyssas covered the centre-backs whenever necessary and marked opponent wingers with perfect ease. Centre-backs Dellas and Kapsis covered each other’s mistakes very well. Greece’s game was based on strict man marking, but whenever an attacker would slip past his marker there would always be defensive cover present. Central midfielders Zagorakis and Basinas would frequently drop back to help the defence. It was the perfect defensive set-up, which worked without any hitch.
Greek formation in Euro 2004
Sadly, good defensive play is rarely appreciated in the media. Majority of fans like to go by the gloss of attacking football and overlook the tactical nuances of a good defensive side. Greece, as expected got bad press. A Portugal side that never looked fully comfortable at home was hailed as a saviour of good football while Greece was painted as the epitome of negativity.
This time tactics won. A team of ordinary and limited players were bonded by flawless tactical approach. Portugal was dealt away with minimal fuss. Centre-forward Charisteas headed in a goal in 57th minute from a Basinas corner and that was it. A fitting end, as all Greek goals were scored in a similar way in KO rounds.
This win reminded everyone that football was a team game. It was no fluke. There were no controversial decisions given by referees. A team had dealt away with Spain, France, Czechs and the hosts, twice. Possibly the most memorable and improbable win in the history of International football. A 299/1 odds team won the trophy because it played as a team.
It was clear that Greece will not be able to match their achievements in future tournaments. Dellas was 28, Kapsis 30, Fyssas 31. Three of the defenders hit their peak form during the tournament and their form went downhill afterwards. Experienced custodian Angelos Nikopolidis was 33 during Euro. Influential midfielders Zagorakis was 32, and Basinas was 28 years old. Greece endured a disappointing qualifying campaign for the 2006 world cup and missed out.
They were back in their elements by the time of Euro 2008, qualifying after topping the group. However, they would put up a dismal performance in the title defence, finishing last in a group containing eventual champions Spain and semi-finalists Russia. Despite the poor performances, Greece was in their most consistent era. Before Rehhagel took over they had qualified for just two major tournaments, Euro’80 and World Cup ’94. In the last decade itself, they have qualified for three tournaments. World Cup 2010 qualification was achieved after a typical 1-0 aggregate win over Ukraine in the play-offs.
Fast Forward 2010..
“Come back now. If you are to play as you did with South Korea, how many goals would you concede to Nigeria and Argentina?” roared the headlines of Greek paper Filathlos. “Nightmare number 2”, is the headline of Ora ton Spor, referring to Greece’s disappointing show in World Cup 1994.
Greece had just lost the opening game to South Korea. The result was 2-0. More than the result, how Greece played was baffling. Tziolis failed to mark Lee Jung-Soo on the far post as the grateful Korean scored the opener in the opening six minutes. Ironically, the goal was scored from a free kick from right wing, similar to how Greece operated in 2004. They never looked like getting back into the game. Shoulders drooped; there was no creativity, no drive, no desire, and no passion.
The team in 2004 didn’t allow a single square-inch without a fight, as there was constant pressing. The current team looks too tired to do continuous pressing, as too much space was allowed. The players didn’t look like they were playing a world cup match. The athletic Koreans dominated from start to finish. The famed Greek defence was in tatters. The remarkable set-piece play of 2004 was invisible.
Rehhagel’s tactics were questionable. Firstly, he started out with 3rd and 4th choice centre-backs, leaving Sotiris Kyrgiakos on bench. They played a 4-3-3, but this is probably the least creative 4-3-3 one will ever see. Dimitris Salpingidis was left on bench, which resulted in a lack of width in the formation. Georgios Samaras was totally ineffective on the left wing where he was played out of position. Theofanis Gekas rarely plays well against bigger teams and he left his scoring boots in his home again. The very little service he got was poor, as well.
The centre-back partnership was made up of two error prone defenders, and unsurprisingly it was a terrible error from Loukas Vyntra that let Park Ji Sung loose to slot in the second Korean goal.
This world cup had seen some poor performances till date, but this was the worst of the lot. This was not just a case of poor play; Greece looked like a team which had lost the game even before they took the field – usually an alarming effect of dressing room disharmony.
Gekas didn’t offer any goal scoring threat!
Dressing Room disharmony ?
Surely enough reports of trouble surfaced later. Apparently, the decision to bench Kyrgiakos had divided the dressing room. The decision to sub captain Giorgos Karagounis was not taken too well either.
“Karagounis never got the hang of the play. He was never agile enough and it didn’t work out for him. I always act swiftly when I see a change is required. It’s my job to do that as a coach”, this was the explanation given by Rehhagel. The captain however thought otherwise – “Every player who gets substituted has got the right to feel sorrow. As soon as the World Cup ends, I will speak about Rehhagel and his choices. Having said that, everyone is entitled to a bad day in the office, both the players and the coach.”
Rehhagel’s decision to keep talented youngster Sotiris Ninis on the bench was criticized too. The team looked de-motivated and disinterested; Ninis could have added some much-needed flair and drive. This Greece team till now looks just a shadow of the excellently drilled team of 2004. The defence is disjointed, there seems to be lack of communication between players, Korea’s second goal is a proof of that. It looks like King Otto has lost the motivation for his job. All news coming out of Greece suggests that this will be his last ‘hurrah’ as their coach.
Can he mastermind another Houdini act ?
Greece made a shameful exit in the 1994 world cup, after letting in 10 goals in 3 games. The first game doesn’t augur any better hopes this time. They still haven’t scored a goal in a world cup match. Otto Rehhagel must think of something fast to turn around the Greek ship. Matches against Nigeria and Argentina hardly offer any signs of optimism.