SPORTS

Rehhagel rues missing out

Greece, the 2004 European soccer champion, is heartbroken not to feature at the World Cup finals, having failed to go through after a lackluster qualifying campaign. But the Greeks say they are already drawing up their battle plans for the European championship qualifiers starting in September, leaving as little as possible to chance and determined to defend their crown in Austria and Switzerland in 2008. «Our heart is bleeding by the fact that we are not in Germany, we are saddened not to have gone through,» said coach Otto Rehhagel, who wanted to make a triumphant return to his home country as Greece coach. «But we are carefully planning our work for September, which is very near,» he added. Greece languished in the mediocrity of European soccer until stunning the world with its surprise victory at the 2004 European championships in Portugal. Beating the hosts twice, as well as France and the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal and the semifinal, Greece became the first team in a major tournament to go through three knockout rounds without conceding a goal. Since then, Greece has considerably grown in confidence, Rehhagel extended his contract until 2008 and dozens of players have emigrated to compete in better soccer leagues. Rehhagel has gradually brought in younger players, including Manchester City’s recent record signing Giorgos Samaras and keeper Michalis Sifakis, targeted by Marseille. This is a far cry from preparations for the 2006 World Cup campaign that started two months after the European championships. Still reeling in delight from their Euro glory in July and with most players only just back from their holidays, Greece started their World Cup qualifiers with a spectacular 2-1 defeat against Albania in September 2004. After that, things never really improved for Greece, who was left trailing group leader Ukraine and fighting it out until the last match with Turkey and Denmark for the group’s second spot. It ended up in fourth place, its hopes of a second World Cup participation after 1994 dashed. However, Greece is not the only European Champion not to qualify to the next World Cup. The winners of the European Championships in 1976, Czechoslovakia, and in 1992, Denmark, also failed to appear two years later in the World Cup. «We are seriously preparing for September and we will work as hard as necessary to qualify,» Greece and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Stelios Yiannakopoulos said. «We don’t want to miss out on this event as well because we are the reigning champions.» Greece is drawn in Group C with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Malta, Moldova, Norway and Turkey.