The inclusion of Sotiris Ninis and Sokratis Papastathopoulos in Otto Rehhagel’s squad to face Slovakia suggests that the two brightest stars in Greek football are about to carry the burden of an entire nation on their young shoulders…In a squad totally devoid of creativity, save for the perpetual bursts of energy and inspirational tirelessness of Giorgos Karagounis, the importance of the development of teenage sensation Sotiris Ninis to Greek football is one that cannot be understated. Comparisons might be drawn between Ninis and dead-ball specialist Vassilios Tsiartas, perhaps the most talented footballer that Greece has ever produced, with the 18-year-old already sharing certain similarities with his diminutive midfield predecessor.
Similarly, the absence of young legs in an ageing back-line means that the sudden rise to prominence of 20-year-old Genoa centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos (pictured) becomes much more than a symbol of a potentially bright future for Greek football: it might also present a short-term solution to a worrying problem for Rehhagel. With Traianos Dellas now well past his best – he performed admirably in Euro 2008, though – and Sotirios Kyrgiakos sacrificing speed for raw power, Papastathopoulos’ energy and composure might become crucial during the qualification process for South Africa.
Make no mistake about it, to Greek fans, qualification to the World Cup would mean almost as much as winning the Henri Delaunay trophy four years ago. For those of the Hellenic Diaspora, the embarrassment of USA ’94, during which Greece conceded ten goals and scored none during an apocalyptic version of the group stages, is a nightmare which has been difficult to escape. One can only speculate as to the significance of being able to watch Greece on the world stage to these people; perhaps, it was a point of suddenly finding another avenue through which to celebrate ethnic origins. Participation at the World Cup in ’94, aside from being the biggest moment in Greece’s modest football history, might have been a point of pride – one which was severely damaged by a painful showing in the United States.
I must confess that I speculate as to the feelings of Greek people and Greek football fans around the world during that infamous participation on one of the world’s great sporting stages. For some, the thrill of seeing Greece present itself to 4-or-so billion people might have been enough. To others, the disappointment of the performance in USA was perhaps more difficult to take after having watched a promising side sensationally qualify for the tournament – and then be largely replaced by relics as a ‘reward’ for their services to club and country. There had been so much promise but the archetypal disappointment that had always plagued Greek football – whether through politics or unprofessionalism – again reared its ugly head.
It is in the context of such pain that the summer in Lisbon carried with it such emotional weight and significance to a much-maligned football culture. To put it simply, Euro 2004 would not have been what it was without participation in the US exactly a decade earlier.
It is in this light that neutrals can understand how important it is to millions of Greeks – as well those scattered around the world – that Greece performs in the ultimate football theatre in 2010.
The question remains though, as to who exactly will take them to South Africa?
The most sensible answer is that of the man who has transformed the national team into the state where it is expected to qualify for the World Cup. Whilst Rehhagel’s leadership will again be needed during the next two years, the influence of the German gradually is reduced from the initial dictatorial leadership that was necessary to break the stereotypical barriers endemic to Greek footballers, to a much more subtle role of ‘father figure’ to the core of his trusted side. Rehhagel’s players have basically stayed the same throughout his reign – the recall of Dellas and Basinas, 32 and 33 respectively, illustrates the point – and as a result know exactly what is expected of them by the German.
Rehhagel’s reluctance to breed a new playing philosophy and meddle with his squad is no accident. He knows that stability is fundamental to the success of the national team during his reign, a success which is clearly measured in consistent qualification for major tournaments – and rightly so.
Whilst a strict adherence to the managerial basics ensured Rehhagel’s qualification to Euro 2008, the lack of a rogue, a deviant, an Achilles-type dissident, cost him dearly in Austria. It is important to recognize that the success of 2004 was built upon a foundation of tactical discipline but only successful because such discipline was complimented and offered reprieve by the presence of an ‘X-Factor’ which totally contradicted the philosophies under which the German had unified the side. Essentially Tsiartas, with his moodiness and irrepressible swagger, was the type of man to make all of the work of his team-mates worth the effort.
If Greece is to qualify for South Africa 2010, the core players upon which Rehhagel has established his regime must again be in unison with their manager. It is an aspect of the national team which all Greek fans can be confident will remain in tact.
As for the unearthing of a superstar who will score that ambitious free-kick or deliver that killer through-ball? A crucial question upon which qualification – and, perhaps more importantly, performance at the World Cup itself – hinges.
In truth, Rehhagel’s tried and trusted formula should get him through a fairly straight-forward qualifying group. But if the German wants to correct the mistakes of those men who scarred an entire generation of fans in ’94, then he simply must blood his two young starlets during the next two years. If they aren’t ready by the time they reach South Africa, then the horror memories of our only participation at the World Cup might not seem such a distant memory.