After losing all three matches at Euro 2008 in Austra-Switzerland, Greece made a rapid exit from the tournament, with German coach Otto Rehhagel, the hero of 2004, unable to repeat the heroics that had seen Greece stun Europe four years previously. 

Rehhagel has now been replaced by Portuguese coach Fernando Santos and there are realistic hopes that Greece can reach the second phase – from where anything is possible. While Greece are no superteam, they know how to defend properly and will not be scared by any of their first three opponents.

Under Santos, the changes have been slow but purposeful. It’s been evolution not revolution as the elder generation has slowly been eased out and new blood gradually given an opportunity. Santos has also given the players greater freedom of movement on the pitch, with positive results.

Greece are in a curious group, where they could finish as the best side or the worst.

The key fixture will be the opening match against hosts Poland, which will revive memories of Euro 2004, when Greece stunned hosts Portugal in the tournament’s opening match. The Czech Republic are nowhere near the side of Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller of 2004, although Russia do have class players in Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak. Fortunately for Greece they play Russia in their final game, when hopefully they will have enough points already in the bag.

Certainly they can take heart from a successful qualifying campaign. They began with an unexpected draw in Piraeus against Georgia, but in the next game they managed a significant result, taking a point from group favourites Croatia in Zagreb.

Performances then improved as the changes introduced by Santos paid off. Five consecutive victories followed and Greece took charge of the group. A dip followed as they underestimated their next opponents, Latvia, and drew in Riga. But the Greek federation president publicly backed the coach and his loyalty was rewarded in the penultimate game, in Piraeus, where Croatia were beaten and Greece returned to the top of the standings. In the last game, in Tbilisi, a smart and disciplined performance earned a 2-1 victory and Greece were through to the finals.

Contrast to Rehhagel
Santos may not have the big-name reputation of Rehhagel but he is intimate with the realities of Greek domestic football, having coached AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and PAOK. He has lived in Greece for a number years – in contrast to Rehhagel, who continued to live in Essen, Germany, arriving two days before each game – and he watches domestic games on a weekly basis, and not just in the Super League.

The Portuguese technician has not been afraid to drop big-name players if they are not in peak condition and he has taken a keen interest in all levels of the national team, from youth through to the senior side, ensuring there is a common style of play.

He has also placed a strong emphasis on promoting young talent, with Sotiris Ninis, Giannis Fetfatzidis and Kyriakos Papadopoulos all coming through in the past two years.

The mood in the squad is positive and the players no longer have split loyalties between club and country. And while the economic crisis has affected many of the players, Santos knows that a good performance in Poland could give the whole country a boost.

The only real headache for the coach is the goalkeeping situation. Michalis Sifakis of Aris only recently returned from serious injury but he is hoping to play his way into the squad. Meanwhile, Dionysis Chiotis had an impressive presence between the posts for APOEL Nicosia in their Champions League campaign, Orestis Karnezis of Panathinaikos is much improved this season while his teenage understudy Stefanos Kapino has enjoyed a rapid rise.

Group A
08.06.12 Poland (Warsaw, Pol)
12.06.12 Czech Republic (Wroclaw, Pol)
16.06.12 Russia (Warsaw, Pol)

1 Kostas Chalkias (38) 30.05.74 PAOK
13 Michalis Sifakis (27) 09.09.84 Aris
12 Alexandros Tzorvas (29) 12.08.82 Palermo (Ita)

20 Jose Holebas (27) 27.06.84 Olympiakos
4 Stelios Malezas (27) 11.03.85 PAOK
2 Giannis Maniatis (25) 12.10.86 Olympiakos
8 Avraam Papadopoulos (27) 03.12.84 Olympiakos
5 Kyriakos Papadopoulos (20) 23.02.92 Schalke (Ger)
19 Sokratis Papastathopoulos (23) 09.06.88 Werder Bremen (Ger)
15 Vasilis Torosidis (26) 10.06.85 Olympiakos
3 Giorgos Tzavelas (24) 26.11.87 Monaco (Fra)

23 Giannis Fetfatzidis (21) 21.12.90 Olympiakos
22 Kostas Fortounis (19) 16.10.92 Kaiserslautern (Ger)
16 Giorgos Fotakis (30) 29.10.81 PAOK
10 Giorgos Karagounis (35) 06.03.77 Panathinaikos
21 Kostas Katsouranis (32) 21.06.79 Panathinaikos
6 Grigoris Makos (25) 18.01.87 AEK
18 Sotiris Ninis (22) 03.04.90 Panathinaikos

17 Fanis Gekas (32) 23.05.80 Samsunspor (Tur)
9 Nikos LIberopoulos (36) 04.08.75 AEK
11 Kostas Mitroglou (24) 12.0388 Olympiakos
14 Dimitris Salpigidis (30) 18.08.81 PAOK
7 Giorgos Samaras (27) 21.02.85 Celtic (Sco)

Fernando Santos (Por) (57) 10.10.54

… Alexandros Tziolis and Panagiotis Kone were the two players to miss out from the initial 25-man squad …

Group F
03.09.10 Georgia (h) 1-1
07.09.10 Croatia (a) 0-0
08.10.10 Latvia (h) 1-0
12.06.10 Israel (h) 2-1
26.03.11 Malta (a) 1-0
04.06.11 Malta (h) 3-1
02.09.11 Israel (a) 1-0
06.09.11 Latvia (a) 1-1
07.10.11 Croatia (h) 2-0
11.10.11 Georgia (a) 2-1

P W D L F A Pts
Greece 10 7 3 0 14 5 24
Croatia 10 7 1 2 18 7 22
Israel 10 5 1 4 13 11 16
Latvia 10 3 2 5 9 12 11
Georgia 10 2 4 4 7 9 10
Malta 10 0 1 9 4 21 1

By Manos Staramopoulos