Australia 1, Greece 0. Admittedly a friendly, but yet another defeat and goalless performance from European champions Greece on Thursday. Undoubtedly victory against all the odds at Euro 2004 was the outstanding moment in Greece’s sporting history, eclipsing even the iconic 1987 European basketball championship, Greece’s first major international team sport title. Results since have been poor. The World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a terrible start against Albania in Tirana with a lacklustre which included gifting 2 goals, ended in a 2-1 defeat. and never really improved. This was followed shortly by a series of hapless performances in the Confederations Cup. Has Rehhakles lost his magic touch?
One reason for Greece’s recent failure is that since Euro 2004, the catenaccio style which was used there so successfully has been taken to another extreme - the argument apparently being “if it worked well let’s do more of it”. Unfortunately two major problems are de-railing this plan. First the goals (of which there were few anyway) have dried up for one of the Euro heroes Angelos Charisteas. Second the defence has aged and become injury-prone meaning it is no longer as disciplined as before. The combined effect is that when a goal is conceded, Greece are in real trouble, lacking the creativity and pace to really trouble top-class opposition.
A second reason for Greece’s demise is the Greek mentality. Greeks tend to perform better when nothing is expected of them - witness a rousing performance at Old Trafford in 2001, in which victory was only denied as a result of some dubious refereeing and a superb performance by Beckham. Witness also Euro 2004 - the only game in which Greece really struggled was the final group match against Russia, which they were expected to win. The pressure this created almost resulted in elimination. Forward wind to the post Euro 2004 and this expectation is now constant - Greece are the European Champions after all, a tag they are struggling with.
Finally and most importantly, the team is old and in need of an overhaul. Captain marvel Zagorakis is now 34. Stelios Giannakopoulos, arguably Greece’s most successful export is 32. Dellas, Basinas, Kapsis and Vryzas are all the wrong side of 30 as well. Unearthing these gems of the future is particularly difficult in a country where players are often considered “emerging talents” until the age of 25 or 26 and where the pressure for success on managers is so great (many clubs changecoach at least 3-4 times per year) that it is preferable to bring in a cheap but experienced Brazilian import than a raw but talented youngster.
So what next for Greece and Rehhagel? Following World Cup elimination, Rehhagel’s star has waned considerably among the fickle Greek press, who are quick to point out his mistakes but who appear oblivious to reality. Victory did not turn the players into Ronaldinhos or Zidanes overnight, as highlighted by the fact that no player from that squad joined a really big club post tournament. The key to victory was organisation and discipline, two words you would not readily associated with the Greek temperament, were the foundation of success and demonstrate the value of Rehhagel’s work. The Greek press now seem to have forgotten this however. Yes there need to be some changes and younger players do need to be brought in - some such as Manchester City’s Georgios Samaras altready have been with considerable success. But if Greek football is to have lasting success, the changes really need to come from the big club sides: Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK in the form of nurturing young talent and giving it its chance rather than imorting expensive has-beens such as Flavio Conceicao and Emerson.
As for Rehhakles, he would be better of retiring now because if poor results continue, Greece’s most successful coach is likely to be remembered as a failure in the illogical world of Greek football.