Passionate, fierce and contradictory would be a fair way to sum up the Greece team of Fernando Santos, who are preparing for their most important 180 minutes in recent years: the two games against Romania that will decide if the country qualifies for a second consecutive FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in its history.
The Greeks, who earned a reputation for defensive football during their remarkable triumph at UEFA EURO 2004, accumulated 25 points in UEFA qualification Group G.
It was the best record in European qualifying after Germany and the Netherlands, who both finished with 28, Belgium (26) and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who pipped the Greeks to first place in their group on goal difference. So where does this habit of focusing more on one’s own goal than that of the opposition come from?
Santos himself tried to explain the phenomenon to FIFA.com. “The team made history at EURO 2004 by concentrating on the defensive side of the game. An identity like that is not easy to change. We’ve tried to play a different way, by pressing more and being a little more aggressive, but really we only managed to change at certain times. Then we slipped back into our comfort zone, our defensive strength. It has its advantages, because we concede very few goals, but obviously it makes things more difficult when we try and attack,” said the Portuguese tactician, who has now completed 41 games in charge of the national team.
The numbers certainly bear this out. Greece conceded only four goals during their qualifying campaign, giving them the second best defensive record in UEFA qualifying after Spain, who let in three. The flip side is that they scored only 12 goals. Neither stat will have gone unnoticed by Romania as they prepare for a tie that promises to be as tight as it is exciting.
The Hellenics, who only have two World Cup appearances under their belts (1994 and 2010), are dreaming of appearing on the world stage a decade after the most memorable moment in the country’s football history: the EURO 2004 triumph in Portugal.
“I remember that tournament well as it was played in my country. In fact, I knew many of the Greek players, and they visited me in my hotel on several occasions. One of the great problems opponents faced back then was that they didn’t believe Greece could cause them problems. But they don’t make that mistake any longer. They know our strengths, and it’s harder to take them by surprise,” said the former coach of AEK Athens, Panathinaikos, who is relying on a little outside assistance to help his team qualify.
“The Greek people are known for being very passionate and they are very proud of their country. The players show this pride when they play. This is our greatest strength. We play with passion and give a hundred percent every game. We must be inspired by what Greece achieved in 2004,” he said.
And when talk turns to the Greek people, it is impossible to ignore the crisis that faces the country today. Does it put extra pressure on the players? “Not pressure,” said Santos, “it motivates us.”
“The country has a 30 percent unemployment rate. So many people around us are struggling. We all have friends or family in difficult circumstances,” he said. “You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect you in some way. It’s down to us to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil and help relieve the suffering of our people a little.”
The Portuguese coach, who refers to himself as Greek when he is in his adopted country – “I don’t say it to please people. Something in my heart becomes Greek when I’m here” – described Romania as “tough opponents, who have rediscovered the football they used to play in the past”. He expects the games to be “open and evenly matched,” and wants the entire nation to get behind his team.
“The home leg will be crucial. I ask people to believe in the players, believe in the team, believe in all of us. We want a packed stadium cheering us on. We know we can qualify, and we are going to do everything we can to achieve it.”
(Greece hosts Romania in the first leg of their UEFA Qualifying Playoff at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus on Nov 15 at 2:45 p.m. ET and can be seen online on ESPN3.)