Coach Fernando Santos
One to Watch Ionnas Fetfadzidis
With Euro 2012 less than a week away, all of our minds, well most of them at least, have turned away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists that will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
Continuing our look into the teams that will contest the Uefa Euro 2012, we arrive in Greece. The Greek national side do not have a very illustrious history in international competition. Greece have qualified for the World Cup Finals just twice in the history of the competition, in 1994 when the tournament was held in the U.S.A. and in 2010 in South Africa.
In 1994 Greece failed to secure any points, crashing out in the group stage, unable to score a single and conceding ten goal in the process. 2010 saw an improvement with a 2-1 win over Nigeria, however, first round elimination at the feet of Argentina was to follow.Greece’s record of qualification for the European Championships is almost as bad, having made the finals just three times, the first being in 1980 and the most recent in 2008, both of these forays ending in group stage elimination.
In 2004, however, Greece stunned the rest of Europe and the footballing world, by winning the tournament and becoming European Champions, defeating the reigning champions, France, and the host nation, Portugal, twice along the way (once in the group stage and again in the final). Greece’s triumph was built on the back of three successive 1-0 victories in the knock-out stages and is regarded as one of the biggest shocks in football history. The success of the Greek team in 2004 owed much to the defensive strategy of, long-time coach, Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who has recently stepped down as manager of Hertha Berlin.
The failed Greek campaigns in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 saw the replacement of Otto Rehhagel, after many years in charge, by Fernando Santos of Portugal. Santos, inheriting an ageing squad in need of revitalisation, set about finding and calling up fresher, talented, younger players in an attempt to integrate them into the squad. Santos didn’t have time on his side, however, as he had to do this quickly enough and well enough to get off to a good start in the qualification campaign for Euro 2012.
Judging by the performances and results that the Greeks have achieved during the last fourteen months, it seems that he has been fairly successful in achieving his goal. He has managed to freshen up the squad and incorporate some younger players while maintaining a solid, ultimately successful, campaign. Greece didn’t lose a match in the qualifying stage, theyfinished top of their group, two points ahead of heavily fancied Croatia, who they beat 2-0 on the way, helping them climb the rankings to an unprecedented eighth in the world.
Looking at the Greek squad as it is now, Santos has managed to incorporate a number of youngsters into the team such as Kyriakos Papalopoudos, and Sotiris Ninis. Papalopodous is an excellent central defender, with fantastic positional awareness for one so young, great anticipation and a handy turn of pace. He currently plies his trade with Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga and was an integral member of the side that finished third in the table (thus ensuring Champions’ League qualification) and made the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Papalopoudos looks to have a very bright future ahead of him, whether he remains in Germany or moves elsewhere. He is being courted by a number of Premier League clubs and, should he shine this summer, may be able to take his pick.
Sotiris Ninis of Panathanaikos is one of the hottest prospects in Greek football. Ninis, who has just turned 22, was the youngest player ever to play for a Greek team in UEFA European competition at 17 years old. First called up by Otto Rehhagel before Euro 2008, Ninis failed to make the final squad, however he did feature briefly at World Cup 2010. Santos has made the tricky midfielder a regular in his team and the youngster has put in some eye-catching performances, notably scoring a fanatstic goal against Israel which practically assured his country’s qualification for Euro 2012. Suffering a long-term injury in September, Ninis only returned to action in March. He would appear to be almost back to full fitness, however, having featured for Panathanaikos following his recovery and will move to Serie A next season having signed a contract with Italian side Parma
Santos has integrated the new, whilst at the same time holding on to some of the veterans who bring such a wealth of experience to the side. Names such as Charisteas in attack and Karagounis in the midfield, although Charisteas hasn’t made the final squad this time, leaving Karagounis and Katsouranis as experienced survivors from Rehhagel’s triumphant 2004 squad.
The current squad then, looks to have a good balance of youth and experience and a number of potentially exciting prospects, in particular, Ionnis Fetfadzidis. Fetfadzidis is a twenty year old attacking midfielder currently playing with Olympiacos, his fantastic close control and skill have led him to be dubbed the “Greek Messi” by Greek fans and players alike.
Although this comparison is certainly premature, he is the kind of player who isn’t afraid to run with the ball and commit defenders and certainly adds a touch of fizz and unpredictability to the Greek arsenal. Making his debut in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Fetfadzidis has gone on to score three goals in twelve caps (as of 29/02/12) so far from wide midfield, despite often starting on the bench, prompting his cub to extend his contract until 2015 and slap a 12.5 million euro release clause on the 20 year old’s contract.
Despite these new additions to the squad with their skill and trickery in midfield, Greece’s success in qualification was still fundamentally based on defending. Although the Greeks came through their group unbeaten, they only scored fourteen goals in ten games getting to Poland and Ukraine, less than any other of the qualifying nations. Whilst they only conceded five goals during this time, Greece, under Santos, still lack pace and creativity on the whole, and rely heavily on veterans such as Gekas and Samaras to score their goals.
Drawn in group a alongside Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, Greece could fancy their chances. Although the teams are very evenly matched, it is by far the weakest group on paper. Russia are the flair team in the group and, after their excellent showing at Euro 08, coupled with their form in qualification, I would expect them to finish on top.
Who comes second is nothing if not up for grabs. Poland will have fanatical support as the host nation and that may lift them and inspire them through. The Czech’s are capable of producing fantastic football but, when not on song, that level drops and they can be dull and predictable. Greece, with their resolute, stubborn defensive record, may just squeak through in second. If they can keep a couple of clean sheets, they are certainly capable of nicking the odd goal, as we know only too well.
Lightening doesn’t strike the same place twice, or so they say, in which case Greece have absolutely no chance of winning Euro 2012. But, with the economy collapsing amidst political turmoil in Athens and the future far from secure for many at home, just reaching the knock-out stages will bring all Greek fans something welcome to celebrate.
Ninis image by Dreamon. Fans image by Leonid Mamchenkov.
Rehhagel image by Tonikyrinfo.