“We do not want an extra bonus, or money. We only play for Greece and its people.”
This was a heartening footnote to Greece climbing their highest peak for a decade. While pain was the only prevalent emotion in Recife, as a shoot-out defeat cut short their first trip to the knockout stages at 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the team’s united message to the Greek prime minister beamed pride. A South American journey to ultimately cherish.
With Costa Rica getting to step out in Salvador in a historic quarter-final, Greece are now dreaming of tasting another rollercoaster ride in Russia next year, as they prepare to lock horns with Croatia for one of Europe’s four remaining tickets to the finals. However, to even be here, after the three years that followed, is something of an achievement itself.
After Brazil 2014, coach Fernando Santos departed for prosperous pastures with his native Portugal, along with the likes of midfield talisman and captain Giorgos Karagounis – aged 37 – ending 15 years in the side. New boss Claudio Ranieri arrived to open this new chapter.
Following on from Otto Rehhagel and Santos, Ranieri diverted from his predecessors’ more solid, steadfast style – though his approach would of course bring incredible success in is next role at Leicester City – beginning what descended into a catastrophic revolution.
A disjointed team bereft of cohesion and fight – the key marble pillars holding up their resilient acropolis – crumbled. A soulless defeat to Faroe Islands in Piraeus, his third loss in four, was an indiscretion too far.
As successors Kostas Tsanas and Sergio Markarian failed to arrest the slide, they were the first top seeds ever in European Championship or World Cup qualification to finish bottom of their group – scoring their first home goal in the campaign’s final game.
After Santos, before Skibbe
Claudio Ranieri: Romania (loss), Finland (draw), Northern Ireland (L), Faroe Islands (L)
Kostas Tsanas (caretaker): Serbia (L)
Sergio Markarian: Hungary (D), Faroe Islands (L), Poland (D)
Tsanas: Finland (L), Romania (D), Northern Ireland (L), Hungary (win)
Enter Michael Skibbe. Owing Rehhagel’s legacy to the reason the Greek FA turned to another German, admitting to FIFA.com that it “was certainly a reason, if not the main reason”, the runaway train took time to slow. Defeat by Luxembourg showed the challenge he faced.
“I believe in good discipline and strong tactical awareness on the pitch,” Skibbe had said. “That was the foundation for Greece’s strongest years in the 2000s and their EURO win, and that’s what we want to return to.” With three wins from four Russia 2018 qualifiers, only an 89th minute from Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku prevented them leaving with all three points – showing Skibbe had achieved that goal impressively in little over a year.
Six of the side that started in Brussels also featured in the disarray against the Faroes – with first choice keeper Oscar Karnezis out injured, too – showing evolution, rather than revolution, was exactly what they had needed.
Now, they arguably face their toughest test since that game with their play-off double-header with Croatia. Skibbe expects their defensive reputation – built now on the foundations of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas – to be key, particularly with Zagreb their first destination.
“It is maybe good to have the second match at home. You can have more defensive tactics if you’re playing away and then you can look at what’s going on in the second match,” he told FIFA.com after the play-off draw.
“Playing offensive football they are quite good, but most of the time we are good at defending, so we will see what happens on the pitch.”
Had you offered Greece fans this scenario two years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find one who wouldn’t have taken it.