Greece

Road to the finals

After shocking Europe to win Euro 2004, Greece go into this year’s tournament as the holders and, befitting their remarkable achievement in Portugal four years ago, they have hit better form in time for the defence of the trophy. The timing couldn’t be better either as the last four years have been something of a deflating experience for the Greek faithful. Despite being favourites to win their qualifying group for the 2006 World Cup, Otto Rehhagel’s men shockingly finished fourth, behind the qualifiers Ukraine and Turkey.

Having seemingly vindicated critics who considered their European Championship victory a fluke, qualifying for Austria and Switzerland was an absolute must. It was no foregone conclusion either, as the Greeks were pitted against their former nemesis Turkey, as well as Norway, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Malta. The campaign began in earnest away to Moldova and Nikolaos Lyberopoulos provided the perfect start, notching the only goal of the game to secure three points. The challenge was then upped with a contest against fellow qualification hopefuls Norway in Athens. Stout defence, a combative midfield and the occasional killer touch proved a winning formula again, as it did in Portugal, with Kostas Katsouranis the hero this time. Six points from two games, and the nightmare campaign for the last World Cup was seemingly a distant memory.

Emphasis on seemingly. Although the morale-boosting victory against Norway was followed by a 4-0 thumping at the expense of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey were on hand to deliver a thumping of their own. Despite enjoying home advantage, the Turkish ran wild on the Greek defence, cruising to a 4-1 win.

Fortunately, the effect of such a defeat was not prolonged, as the blue and whites got back on track with a second-half penalty courtesy of Angelos Basinas against Malta, and then comfortably defeated Hungary 2-0. Another formality was then met, when Lyberopoulos again struck in the dying seconds against Moldova to secure the win, before the prospect of Norway away beckoned. In an action-filled game, it was the Greeks who left the happier, picking up an invaluable point after a 2-2 draw.

This performance provided a further boost, reflected in subsequent games. A relatively comfortable victory against Bosnia and Herzegovina kept the run going, and then revenge was exacted against the Turkish. With the atmosphere duly hot in Turkey, the Greeks didn’t wilt and incredibly picked up three points thanks to Ioannis Amanatidis’ late winner. The rest of the campaign proved to be a breeze, as a 5-0 thumping against Malta (including a hat-trick from Theofanis Gekas) and another triumph against Hungary secured not only qualification, but the group winner accolade as well. Quite the turnaround in fortunes!

Manager

For what he’s achieved with the national team, Otto Rehhagel practically has carte blanche in Greece. However, he is also renowned in Germany as one of the most successful managers and, having participated in over 1000 matches, Rehhagel is considered the ‘child of the Bundesliga’.

A resolute defender during the 1960s and early 1970s, Rehhagel began his career in 1960 with Rot-Weiss Essen before moving to Hertha Berlin in 1963. The bulk of his career was spent with Kaiserslautern, although without a great deal of success and he eventually retired in 1972.

His time out of the game was short, as Rehhagel took over at Kickers Offenbach in 1974. Thus began a remarkable procession of managerial jobs, as he moved to Werder Bremen to Borussia Dortmund to Arminia Bielefeld to Fortuna Dusseldorf and then back to Werder Bremen – all within five years! Rehhagel eventually found a stable job in 1981 with Bremen, leading them for 14 years and bringing in a host of silverware, including two Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal cups and even the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1993. He finally moved to Bayern Munich in 1995 but, despite leading the team to the UEFA Cup final, Rehhagel was a poor match with Munich and was sacked.

However, he was still in demand and joined Kaiserslautern, his quondam club as a player. Over four years, Rehhagel cemented his reputation as one of the best German managers around, even winning the Bundesliga in 1998. Sadly, internal problems led club and manager to part company and the Greek job beckoned.

Taking over in 2001, Rehhagel steered the team to Euro 2004 in impressive fashion. At the tournament itself, despite being ranked 100-1, the Greeks amazingly lifted the trophy due to his stout defensive approach, which frustrated the likes of France and, in the final, Portugal. Although this was followed by disappointment in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Rehhagel’s position is still secure (having signed an extension until 2010) and hopes are high going into the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

Three to watch

Georgios Samaras

A tall yet surprisingly elegant striker, Samaras has been mooted as a top prospect for quite some time now, without ever realising his talent. He started his career in Holland at just 16 years old with Heerenveen and progressed at a startling rate. Making his first-team debut at 17, he really exploded from the 2004/2005 season onwards, scoring 33 goals in 59 appearances with the club.

After plenty of big name interest, Samaras opted to move to Manchester City but never really developed as expected. Although he started well, scoring a number of goals in quick succession, Samaras’ career tailed off equally quickly. Under new manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, things didn’t improve and he moved over to Celtic on loan. He concluded the season with the Scottish club, scoring a number of goals leading into Euro 2008. Still just 23 years of age, he has plenty to offer, and may just display it in Austria and Switzerland.

Giourkas Seitaridis

A fine full-back and already an experienced international at a young age, Seitaridis is also one of the few members of the Greek squad playing in the top European leagues. Starting his career with PAS Giannina in 1998, he spent three seasons with the Greek strugglers before heading over to domestic giants Panathinaikos in 2001.

Having made his debut with the Greek national team in 2002, he was a critical part of their win in Portugal and his stock duly rose. FC Porto secured his signature for the 2004/2005 season as a replacement for the outgoing Paolo Ferreira and he enjoyed a decent time in Portugal, but moved to Russia in 2005 with Dynamo Moscow for one season. His time there was decidedly less enjoyable and he subsequently opted for another transfer, moving to Atletico Madrid.

Despite some injury difficulties, Seitaridis remains a first-teamer at Madrid and with Greece. If the latter are to have any hope of defending their trophy, he will have to be on top form.

Antonios Nikopolidis

A stalwart in Greek club and international football, Nikopolidis is also revered in Greece as one of the finest keepers in history. He began his time in football with Panathinaikos in 1989, moving from his local team, and spent 15 long years with the club, even scoring two goals. In his time there, Nikopolidis also picked up the 2004 Greek Championship and the Greek Cup.

Without doubt one of the best performers in the triumphant 2004 squad, Nikopolidis was named the goalkeeper of the tournament and responded by joining Panathinaikos’ arch-rivals Olympiakos. Although infuriating his former fans, he nevertheless enjoyed plenty more success, winning two consecutive doubles with Olympiakos and four league titles in total with the club. Now, at 36 years of age, Euro 2008 will most likely represent his swansong in international football and, with over 80 caps to his name, it will cap a remarkable career for club and country.

Win or lose?

Despite going into the tournament as holders, Greece’s failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and the general limitations of the squad means the bookies are not exactly convinced of their chances. 888 Sport have them at 25/1, while Ladbrokes quote 20/1 and William Hill are bit more pessimistic, giving them a 22/1 chance to win the tournament.