Forty-seven months of waiting has finally reached an end, as that special month that comes but once every four years for soccer lovers has begun with the kickoff at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The additional attraction for Greek fans is that the country’s national team will be there with the mission to boldly go where no Greek has gone before: the knockout stages of the tournament.
This pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Soccer, where love for the sport borders on religion, is just the third time that Greece has qualified for the World Cup finals, but it's also the second time in a row. After its disastrous World Cup debut in the US 20 years ago, when Greece lost all three games and conceded 10 goals without reply, the national team put on a much better performance in South Africa in 2010, scoring its first goals and a victory in the finals, beating Nigeria 2-1.
Now the challenge ahead for the Blue-and-Whites is none other than to push for qualification from the group stage, where Lady Luck as well as the good results of recent years have landed Greece in a relatively negotiable group that includes Colombia, Japan and Ivory Coast.
Manager Fernando Santos, for whom Brazil will be a swan song on the Greece bench, said in a recent interview that Greece has the ability to qualify to the second round – the last 16 of the World Cup – but that he also knows it is not just down to the national squad’s performance: It also depends on how the other three teams perform in this wide-open group.
The Portuguese coach has always opted for a defensive approach during his four years at the Greek helm, which explains the record of only 12 goals scored in 10 games in its qualifying group, or the tally of just two goals in four friendlies this year. However the emphasis that Santos has placed on the midfield in selecting the squad for the World Cup highlights both the wealth of talent and depth of the squad, which non-Greeks seem to know very little about, and the priority that he intends to place on the transition game (the transfer of the ball from defense to attack).
The Greek defense is weakened by the absence of injured Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Dimitris Siovas, the poor form of Avraam Papadopoulos, as well as the recent injury suffered by Borussia Dortmund star Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who remains in the squad but is doubtful for the first game.
The front line is dogged by the questionable fitness of Costas Mitroglou, the star of the national squad, who got off to a spectacular start in the first three months of the season before being sidelined by injury in November. He has yet to return to the level of play that convinced Fulham to sign him in January for 12 million pounds. Greece’s other center forward, Fanis Gekas, had a good second half to the season in Turkey with Konyaspor, but wasted several chances in the World Cup warmup games.
It is therefore the midfield that will be the main focus for Greece, as Santos has brought an inspiring mix of youthful and experienced players across the Atlantic to contain the opponents’ creative stars and feed the Greek strikers in the 4-3-3 formation he is so fond of. Next to the experience of Euro 2004 winners Costas Katsouranis and captain Giorgos Karagounis, as well as battle-hardened Alexandros Tziolis and Yiannis Maniatis, Santos has introduced the creativity of three players who have improved considerably since their move from the Greek league to Italy: Yiannis Fetfatzidis, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos and Panayiotis Kone.
After three friendly games (0-0 in Portugal, 0-0 with Nigeria and 2-1 over Bolivia in the US), the Euro 2004 champion has landed at Aracaju, on Brazil's Atlantic coast, and is gearing up for its first game tomorrow against the seeded team in the group, Colombia.
The opening match at Belo Horizonte will likely be crucial for the future of the national team in the tournament, as a victory will put it in the driving seat, while a bad loss could lead to demoralization and reawaken the ghosts of 1994.
Santos, who will most likely be replaced by experienced Italian manager Claudio Ranieri once the tournament has ended for Greece, is putting his trust in Orestis Karnezis in goal. He was the main goalkeeper in qualifying, although the former Panathinaikos stopper only played few games this season at Granada in the Spanish league.
If Papastathopoulos is not fit enough for the opening game, it will be Loukas Vyntra of Levante in Spain partnering Olympiakos's Costas Manolas at the center of the defense, with Jose Holebas (Olympiakos) and Vassilis Torosidis (Roma) on the left and right of the back line respectively.
Olympiakos's Maniatis and Katsouranis of PAOK are Greece's midfield lynchpins and they will be joined either by Tziolis of Kayserispor or Bologna's Kone: Tziolis is more experienced and his style of play matches that of Colombia (he is not the fastest of players), while Kone appeared in top shape in the last friendly against Bolivia, where he scored the opening goal. Expect Fulham's Karagounis to come on around the hour mark, either to boost possession in case of a favorable result at that point or to provide a pinpoint cross or two to the strikers.
Mitroglou may have not scored a goal for over six months, but Santos hopes the former Olympiakos striker will be alright on the night. He will likely play for the first 60-65 minutes before being replaced by Gekas. Flanking Mitroglou will be Celtic’s Giorgos Samaras on the left – arguably Greece’s most recognizable player – and either PAOK’s Dimitris Salpingidis or Genoa’s Fetfatzidis on the right.
Brazil's humid conditions will likely favor Colombia, and the time of the game, with the kickoff at 1 p.m. local time, will not thrill the older players in the team. The very idea behind going to the US on June 1 to prepare for the tournament was adjusting to the humidity. That will be another factor to watch at the Mineirao Stadium.
Colombia certainly can't boast the youngest roster in the tournament. Its center of defense is marshaled by the evergreen 38-year-old Mario Yepes, while keeper Faryd Mondragon will at 43 become the oldest player ever in World Cup finals if he gets to play.
There are two main concerns as far as Colombia manager Jose Pekerman is concerned: maintaining the excellent performance of its defense with the absence of experienced but injured central defender Luis Perea – with whom Yepes formed a formidable duo during the South American qualifiers – and the replacement of Colombia’s biggest soccer star of the last five years, Radamel Falcao. The 28-year-old Monaco striker will miss the World Cup at the prime of his career after being injured while playing in the French Cup in January.
Of course there's plenty of talent in the Colombian squad, which features James Rodriguez, Teofilo Gutierrez and Carlos Bacca, to name just a few of the biggest threats among Los Cafeteros.
Colombia may be the group’s seeded team on paper, but that doesn't mean that the pool’s other teams are mere lightweights – quite the opposite. The ultimate center forward Didier Drogba, African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure and lethal Gervinho lead the best generation any African team has ever produced, hoping to finally translate Ivory Coast’s talent into results on the global stage.
But before its game against the Elephants on June 24, Greece will have to negotiate the Samurai Blue on June 19, in a game that will likely be as tricky as any. Japan plays a fast game with plenty of running and quick passing that the Greeks may well find hard to match, in the same way the national team suffered its only defeat this year to South Korea in the March friendly played in Piraeus (2-0 to the Koreans).
Santos went as far as to predict that Japan would top the group, with Greece second; with such stars as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, Japan’s Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni will be spoilt for choice.
If Greece does make it past the group stage, it will have a mountain to climb, as it will meet Uruguay, Italy or England, unless of course Costa Rica springs a major surprise to upset the other three teams in its group.
This World Cup will also be the first to be screened in Greece in high definition, through state broadcaster NERIT’s NHD channel. All games will be aired on state channels NERIT and NERIT Sports, all the way to the final, which will take place at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium on July 13.
Soccer fans will be treated to an average of three games per day in the first two weeks, with a new match starting every three hours between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. Greek time. Greece’s game against Colombia kicks off at 7 p.m., that against Japan at 1 a.m. and the last match with the Ivorians has an 11 p.m. kickoff.
All this means that, for some, next to the beers and the ouzos, coffee will also be the order of the night. Will you be up for Japan vs Ivory Coast, which kicks off at 4 a.m. on Sunday?