Why do Greece always get an easy route? Low-key friendlies and Euro 2004 are key to major finals

They might not be most people's idea of a formidable football team but their record since Euro 2004 is surprisingly good - and that owes a lot to their choice of opposition
By Peter Staunton

It would not be remiss to say that Greece's Fifa ranking took an unexpected upturn at Euro 2004. The team rose 21 places in the space of a month, from 35-14, as a result of the endeavours of Otto Rehhagel's men and they have rarely been out of the top 20 since.

The legacy, therefore, of Euro 2004 still endures almost a decade on. From that tournament victory, Greece were bounced high into the football stratosphere and have stayed in orbit. Whatever the criticism the Fifa ranking procedure, there can be no doubt that, through accident or design, Greece have been chief beneficiaries of its vagaries.

Their near perpetual standing as top seeds usually means they have a favourable group come qualification time. Aside from the qualification phase for Euro 2012, they have been first seeds in qualification for all major tournaments since 2008, meaning that they have traditionally avoided one of the stronger continental forces.

Success at Euro 2004 gave them top rank for the qualifiers prior to Euro 2008. Their good form there kept their ranking high enough to merit top spot again in the run-up to World Cup 2010.

And aside from losing a few friendlies in 2010, their form is generally solid in those fixtures. Aided, as they are, by the identity of friendly opponents, Greece aren't beaten very often. Neither do they play often against the top teams in the world. Since the visit of Italy in November 2008, they have not played a side ranked in the top 10 outside of tournament time. Between their defeats to Argentina at World Cup 2010 and to Romania in a friendly in November 2011, they went 17 matches unbeaten.

There are two ways of looking at this.

One, the EPO, the Greek Football Federation, values a high rank to continue the sequence of qualification the Greeks have enjoyed - they have played in all three major tournaments since missing World Cup 2006. Even then, the seedings for that qualification cycle, crucially, were sorted out in December 2003 - before their famous win in Portugal.

This short-term approach is probably the reason why a pragmatic coach, Fernando Santos, maintains the status quo and relies on his old deputies, Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgios Karagounis. So long as Greece qualify, which they usually do, everyone is safe. There is a conservatism and a complacency about Greece's play until their backs are well and truly against the wall.

But on the other hand, the constant matches against lesser or equal-rank teams do the Greeks no favours when it comes time to play the major nations at finals tournaments. They look rusty; out of ideas. Their recent tournament record is not great, despite getting out of the groups at Euro 2012.

Nonetheless, Greece will reach Brazil if they convert a 3-1 first-leg lead against Romania in Tuesday's play-off and are sure to be back in the top seedings for Euro 2016. They will again avoid a heavy-hitter. Don't bet against them making it to five tournaments in a row.