SPORTS

Greece faces a long road to the World Cup

Just days ago, the national soccer team found out who its opponents will be for a World Cup final berth in Germany in 2006. Greece, which has qualified for soccer’s most prestigious international event just once before, in 1994, overcoming Russia, Iceland, Hungary, and Luxembourg in qualifying play to get to the finals in the USA, can hope for a place at the next World Cup finals after having been drawn into a group also comprising Albania, Denmark, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Ukraine. The Greek squad, however, will need to sustain coach Otto Rehhagel’s disciplined model that earned it a place at next summer’s European Championship finals. Commenting on Greece’s more immediate challenge at the Euro 2004 finals, for which the national team has been drawn into Group A with host nation Portugal, Spain, and Russia – the top two teams of four groups advance to the quarterfinals – Rehhagel noted: «It’s a difficult group with major teams. We’ve got to go to Portugal and present ourselves as best we can to build up strength and be able to perform well during the World Cup qualifiers.» Former coach Alketas Panagoulias, who led Greece to its first-ever European Championship finals, in 1980 in Italy, as well as the squad’s first World Cup finals appearance, noted that Greece would face stiff opposition in the World Cup qualifiers. «There’s lots of talent accumulated in this group. It’s a tough one. But the Greek team’s current members have a major advantage, which I think is the involvement of many players in top European leagues,» Panagoulias remarked. «They’re up against the same players they confront in league competition. This is a positive development that’s helped enormously. The order of qualifiers will play a major role. I’d say it’s preferable to meet the main challengers at home in the return games. I recall not wishing to play Russia in winter during our qualifying bid for the 1994 World Cup finals. Rehhagel knows how to construct teams. He hails from a major school of soccer,» he added. Fixtures for World Cup qualifiers have yet to be determined. Rehhagel denounced the order of World Cup qualifiers as irrelevant. «It doesn’t matter who you meet first up. We began with Spain and Ukraine for our Euro 2004 bid, which we did not want and had tried to change. Ultimately, it worked out,» said Rehhagel. Greece’s bid for a place at the World Cup finals in Germany promises to be a wayfaring adventure demanding flexibility. Group member Kazakhstan, for example, is not a highly regarded soccer nation, but Greece will need to adapt to radically different conditions when it travels, for the first time, to the country’s capital of Almaty, deep in Asia, or a little over 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from eastern neighbor China. Kazakhstan is one of three former Soviet republics in Greece’s group along with Georgia and Ukraine. Greece can also expect neighborly rivalry from Turkey, third at the previous World Cup finals in 2002, as well as Albania. Then there will be the distant Danes, a formidable team that has rarely been absent from European and World Cup finals over the past decade, and which was crowned European Champion in 1992. Interestingly, Greek-Turkish sporting encounters have become more frequent ever since the warming of bilateral ties between the two historically rival nations. Soccer encounters involving the two countries began at club level and have now been elevated to national level for the very first time in official competition. Despite the neighbor’s impressive rise in international soccer, Turkey was, surprisingly, deprived of a Euro 2004 place by Latvia in recent playoffs. Ukraine, one of Greece’s obstacles for the Euro 2004 finals, had defeated the national team 2-0 in Kiev and went down 1-0 in a toughly fought match in Athens. Albania, a fellow group member in World Cup qualifying play for the third consecutive time, has proven a hard nut to crack. Greece failed to emerge victorious from Tirana on both previous meetings. Georgia, the other group member, lost to Greece both home and away when the two teams met in 2000 for Euro qualfiers.