Where do I start? So many emotions. So many thoughts. I think I now know what it’s like to be a hopeless romantic girl watching a chick-flick. My friend Niko said it best; Greek fans felt both the ultimate high and ultimate low in the same game. One thing is clear though, I couldn’t be any prouder of the 23 men that represented Greece in the World Cup this year. This Greek team played hard, they played with passion, and they fought until the very last minute of every single game. They always produced when the game or their tournament’s survival was on the line. Their effort was second to none, but sometimes, it’s just not in the cards to win.
Costa Rica brought with them to this match what I felt was the strongest defense of the World Cup so far. They had only allowed 1 goal scored against them during the group stage, and that was a penalty kick from Uruguay. Italy, England and Uruguay were all unable to score a conventional goal against Costa Rica, and having scored only 1 goal themselves, it didn’t look good for Greece coming into this game.
The Greeks dominated most of the game, but they were unable to score; and that’s what counts in soccer, goals. Being down 1-0 for most of the game, Greece dropped yet another dramatic ending at the end of regulation when Papastathopoulos scored off a Gekas rebound in stoppage time to take the game into extra time. The name Papastathopoulos is now the longest single last name for a goal scorer in the FIFA record books (and he won’t end up missing his wedding this Saturday after all).
The opportunities to score were plentiful for Greece, but they just couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities. That, combined with an unfortunate goal from Costa Rica on a broken defensive play, is why Greece lost. Greece took a total of 24 shots and only 6 were on target. Costa Rica, on the other hand, took 13 shots and only 2 were on target. That means thy scored on one of only two good opportunities. Greece not being able to score in extra time led to the fate of both teams being decided by penalty kicks, and for Costa Rica, this leveled the playing field. Costa Rica was down a man, looked exhausted towards the end of the game, and was unable to produce any kind of attack, so going to penalty kicks was the best opportunity for them to win the match.
And that’s what happened. A missed penalty kick by Gekas on Greece’s fourth attempt all but sealed the deal for a Costa Rica victory. Reports out of the Greek camp are that Samaras requested not to be one of the kick-takers, but it’s not clear if it was due to fatigue or injury (or both). Most fans want to blame Gekas for the loss, but 1) Greece had plenty of chances to end this game in regulation, and 2) there no guarantee the next kicker would have made their shot.
Still, I have a hard time accepting that Gekas is on the team (let alone getting playing time), and that missed penalty will go down as the cherry on top of my frustration with Santos’ choice in lineups. I would have liked to see a lot more of Mitroglou, Fetfatzidis and Samaris, and less of Katsouranis and Gekas. I truly felt those players would have added a lot more punch to Greece’s stalling offense.
Let’s talk about the coach because I have a bittersweet taste in my mouth with Santos. On the one hand, I feel like he is limiting Greece’s potential by selecting the players he does. He always goes for the older, more mature players that have “been around the block.” Against an agile and fast team though, it’s hard for those older players to keep up. On the other hand, Santos has met or exceeded the expectations for Greece in each of the two major tournaments he coached. Greece has only made 7 appearances in a major tournament since 1926 (4 Euro Cups and 3 World Cups) and Santos, in only 4 years as coach, has been responsible for not only qualifying for two of those tournaments, but also reaching the second round in each of them. But I feel his lineup selection is the difference between a good Greek team and a great one. If Greece wants to compete with the Brazils and the Germanys of the world, those details will matter.
So what now?
The Santos era is officially over, as he chose not to renew his contract prior to this year’s World Cup. The new coach will likely be the Italian, Claudio Ranieri, who has all but been confirmed by the Hellenic Football Association (EPO). Ranieri has only coached club teams, but some very notable ones like Chelsea, Juventus and Inter just to name a few. His most recent tenure was with Monaco FC in the French league. In his first year he moved the club out of division 2 by winning the Ligue 2 title for the first time in the club’s history, and then in his second year he carried the club to a second place finish in France’s top division, Ligue 1.
Reports are already coming out that Ranieri favors faster, younger players, and anyone over 33 years of age will not likely return. When I read this, I felt like the gods of Mount Olympus finally heard my whimpers and cries. Players like Gekas, Salpingidis and Katsouranis have likely played their last game for Greece. Ranieri is also familiar with a good amount of Greeks that play in the Italian league, Serie A; players like Kone, Torosidis and Christodoulopoulos will no doubt continue to have a role on the team, and others like Fetfatzidis and Tachtsidis, who I’ve been screaming for all year, will likely get a boost in opportunities. The experience these players get by playing in the highly-competitive Serie A is invaluable.
Euro Cup 2016
Ranieri’s tenure will begin with Greece qualifying for Euro Cup 2016 in France, and those qualification games begin this September. There will be 53 teams, fighting in nine different groups, to join France as one of the final 24 sides playing in Euro Cup 2016. Since France is the host, they automatically qualify. Teams are put into various groups for qualification and each team will play everyone in their group twice, once at home and once away. The top 2 teams from each group will automatically qualify, while the 3rd place teams will have a play-off for the remaining spots.
Greece is in Group F with Romania, Hungary, Finland, Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands. Romania will be looking for revenge since Greece knocked them out of this year’s World Cup during a two-game playoff tie-breaker. The overall competition within this group, however, isn’t too deep, so there’s no reason why the Piratiko shouldn’t qualify for Euro 2016. So what does the future have in store?
Whatever Greece’s plan is, they will be doing it without their longtime leader and team captain, Giorgos Karagounis, who announced his retirement shortly after Greece was eliminated from the World Cup this year. He is the most capped player in the history of Greece, and at 37 years old, Karagounis played 120 minutes in his final game, ran over 8 miles in that game, and even asked to take the last penalty shot. His passion will truly be missed. With a change in leadership on the team, Samaras, Cholevas and Torosidis will need to step up in the locker room and become the motivational leaders this team needs. Here is a breakdown of each area, and some of my thoughts on what needs to happen:
Greece has a top notch defense, and not many changes are likely to happen. The four players that started each of the World Cup games (Torosidis, Papastathopoulos, Manolas and Cholevas) will likely remain role-players. Tzavellas and Moras were on the bench, and Maniatis played in the midfield a lot, but they have a lot of skill and are viable players. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who missed the World Cup because of injury, will likely be making a return; he played a major role in Greece’s run to the quarter-finals in Euro Cup 2012. I’m curious to see what kind of formation Ranieri will go with because that will determine who starts.
Midfielders are plentiful. Kone, Samaris and Christodoulopoulos all proved they are viable starters, and as previously mentioned, the roles of Fetfatzidis and Tachtsidis will likely expand. Two young guys, Fortounis and Mavrias, 21 and 20 years old respectively, will likely to be called up. Midfielders, like defenders, are plentiful, so I don’t expect too much to change here. Again, depending on the formation Ranieri chooses to install, the number of midfielders on the pitch may change based on how many attacking versus defensive midfielders he’ll want to deploy.
Scoring goals has been Greece’s Achilles heel. Although the opportunities have been abundant, the ball hasn’t seen the back of the net much. Samaras and Mitroglou will likely be the only true forwards that remain on the roster, so the hunt will be on for someone that can finish. I believe the prime candidate to join the team will be Athanasiadis, who plays for Greece’s own PAOK. He scored 24 goals for his club over the last two years, so he knows how to find the back of the net. But I believe the key here is Mitroglou; ever since his knee injury at the beginning of this year, he just hasn’t been the same.
During the World Cup qualification play-off, he destroyed Romania with 4 goals in two games, proving he’s a world class player. If that Mitroglou ever shows up, opponents beware.
Greece’s first qualifying match for Euro Cup 2016 is on September 7 against Romania, in Piraeus, Greece – so mark your calendars and keep an eye out for more articles. Don’t like what I have to say? Or have some more insight? Then find me on twitter and let me know!
And most importantly, thank you to Niko Davilas and Spiro Kiousis for their invaluable input.
Thanasi Papoulias is a guest writer for The Pappas Post