SPORTS

Santos to lead Greece into a new era

Portuguese coach Fernando Santos was officially appointed Greece’s new soccer manager yesterday, succeeding Otto Rehhagel, who resigned following his team’s elimination from the World Cup last month. The head of Hellenic Football Federation (EPO), Sofoklis Pilavios, moved quickly to secure Rehhagel’s replacement in the form of the former Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon boss Santos. The 55-year-old, who has extensive experience of Greek soccer after coaching AEK, Panathinaikos and PAOK, signed a two-year contract that will earn him a reported annual salary of 450,000 euros. «Fernando Santos will be the new coach of Greek national team for the next two years, after a unanimous decision by the board,» EPO said in an official statement. Santos has six titles in his trophy cabinet and is considered one of the most successful foreign managers in Greek soccer. His professional stock rose sharply after his successful three-year reign at PAOK. Against all odds, the Thessaloniki side finished this year top of the end-of-season playoffs in the Super League, thereby ensuring a place in next season’s Champions League for only the second time in the club’s history. Despite this success, the 55-year-old announced at the end of last season that he would be leaving the Greek side for personal reasons, immediately prompting interest from several teams. Some reports even linked him with taking over the Portuguese national team. In assuming control of Greece’s squad, Santos will be taking on a new challenge in his coaching career, as he has not managed a national team before. Footsteps Although he has an extensive knowledge of Greek soccer and was voted the country’s best manager of the last decade in a poll held by Skai TV and EPO, Santos has a mountain to scale in order to meet Rehhagel’s milestone of 109 games on the Greek bench. Matching the German’s knack for guiding Greece to qualification for major tournaments will be the first challenge for Santos. In September, Greece begins its qualification campaign for the 2012 European Championships which will be held in Poland and Ukraine. Greece’s first competitive match in Group F will be at home against Georgia on September 3 before the team travels to Zagreb for possibly its toughest qualification match, against Croatia, four days later. Also in Greece’s group are Israel, Latvia and Malta. Rehhagel will certainly be a tough act to follow. He stepped down from the job when his side failed to qualify for the second round of the 2010 World Cup, losing its final group game to Argentina 2-0, despite a historic 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the previous game. However, the 71-year-old manager, who was appointed in 2001, has masterminded unparalleled success during his time in Greece, which had only qualified twice before for international competitions. Legacy Under Rehhagel, Greece qualified for Euro 2008 and this year’s World Cup, as well as Euro 2004 in Portugal, when Greece shocked the world by winning the tournament, despite being 150-1 outsiders when it started. He was nicknamed «King Otto» after the unprecedented triumph succeeded in dragging Greece from soccer obscurity and established the team in the higher echelons of the world rankings compiled by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. Nevertheless, Rehhagel had been widely criticized by the media over his preference for a blunt, defensive style of play and the selection of out-of-form, aging players to represent their country, overlooking younger talent. A series of negative results kept Greece out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and this was followed by a humiliating 4-1 home defeat against Turkey the following year. Greece prompted further unfavorable comments with a disheartening performance in Euro 2008, where it bowed out of the tournament after suffering three consecutive defeats. Despite the media pressure, Rehhagel stuck with his trusted squad and surprised some critics by qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The odds were against the Greeks who started off the tournament with a devastating 2-0 defeat against South Korea. The loss brought severe criticism of Rehhagel and the players, who bounced back to beat 10-man Nigeria for the country’s first ever World Cup finals victory. Excitement about the possibility of Greece qualifying for the next round was short-lived as Rehhagel’s men succumbed to superior Argentina 2-0 despite a brave defensive performance. Rehhagel, who did not return to Greece with the rest of the squad following his resignation, had reportedly said to his players after the Argentina game: «I have had nine wonderful years, but all good things must come to an end. My time here has come full circle and I am happy that I have achieved so much with you.» Now it falls on Santos, who is due to speak at a news conference today, to attempt to emulate or surpass the German’s achievements.