June 27, 2010

Danke Herr Otto!

Otto Rehhagel resigned as manager of the Greek national team following the team's elimination from the World Cup in South Africa.

'King Otto', a nickname he already had during his coaching career in Germany, is also called 'Kind der Bundesliga' (Child of the Bundesliga) having played in the very first Bundesliga game and enjoying an unprecedented number of records as a coach in the Bundesliga. He holds the records for the most victories, most draws, most losses, and his teams have scored the most goals and conceded more than any other.

He took charge of Greece in the summer of 2001 and in his first game as Greece's coach the team lost 5-1 to Finland in Helsinki on the same day that England beat Germany 5-1 for the same group qualification matches to the 2002 World Cup.

His next match for Greece took him to Old Trafford on that famous day that David Beckham was given no less than six chances in the closing minutes to score an equaliser from a spot-kick outside the area to send England to the World Cup. Besides the refereeing travesties of the day Greece stood tall in a game of no importance and not only did they score for the first time ever against England through Angelos Charisteas, but they comfortably gained a draw from an England team full of themselves.  This was the first sign of what Rehhagel could achieve with a team like Greece.

Then followed the qualification process for Euro 2004 which started badly with two 2-0 defeats to Spain at home and away to the Ukraine.  Amazingly, the team went on to win the remaining six matches, including a highly decisive 1-0 win away over Spain in their second matchup, securing first place in the group and an appearance in the European Championship finals for the first time in 24 years.

Expectations before the tournament were quite low, especially with memories of a bitter experience in the 1994 World Cup in the USA and also by having been drawn against the likes of Spain (again), Portugal (the hosts) and Russia for the group stage of Euro 2004.

After the Euro 2004 opening ceremony's floating ship reached the harbour the Greek 'pirate ship' took to the field of play and stole a remarkable win against their Portuguese hosts (2-1) with goals by Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas.

Next was Spain whose 1-0 half time lead in front of a largely Spanish crowd seemed to guarantee a win against a lacklustre Greek side obsessed on defence, but the breakthrough came in the form of an exceptional diagonal pass by Vasilios Tsiartas which allowed Angelos Charisteas to score the equaliser in the second half. The final score was 1-1 and the dream of progressing to the next round in a major tournament for the first time ever was drawing closer.

Russia, already eliminated, took to the field like a storm and with two goals in the first ten minutes of the last group game seemed to have unsettled the Greeks, but then came a goal by Zisis Vryzas to steer the Greek 'pirate ship' to the second round of Euro 2004. Thanks also goes out to Kirichenko for missing a great opportunity in the dying minutes of the match. Phew...

The European Champions of 2000 France were our opponents in the second round and we dispatched them with an amazingly orchestrated goal when on 65 minutes Angelos Basinas found Theodoros Zagorakis with a perfect pass on to the right side of the pitch, whose close control and dribble past Vixente Lizarazu enabled him to sent in a perfect cross to be met by the head of Angelos Charisteas and score. The French onslaught that followed petered out with a couple of close efforts by Thierry Henry, but Greece had done enough to become the first ever team to beat the hosts and the defending Champions in the same tournament.

In the semi-finals Greece was to face the Czech Republic, arguably the best team of the tournament who had already recorded a 3-2 win over the Netherlands, a 2-1 win over Germany and a 3-0 win over Denmark in the quarter-finals. The Greeks began nervously as Tomas Rosicky hit the crossbar and Jan Koller had several efforts saved by Antonios Nikopolidis, but the Czechs were dealt a crucial blow when Pavel Nedved left the pitch injured in the first half. The 90 minutes ended 0-0 and in the first period of extra time the Greek side seemed to be reborn as they took the game by the scruff of the neck and were rewarded with a silver goal on the last minute of the first half with a close range header by Traianos Dellas after an excellently taken corner by Vasilios Tsiartas, thus putting Greece into the Final of Euro 2004 sending the fans into raptures.

For the first time in history (as with so many other things in this tournament), the Final was a repeat of the opening game with Greece facing hosts Portugal in a rematch. In the 57th minute Angelos Charisteas gave Greece the lead with a header from a corner taken by Angelos Basinas. The Greek defence remained solid and allowed Portugal to have most of the possession, but nothing could overcome this Greek side, not even a Cristiano Ronaldo effort in the last minutes of the game, and the Greeks were deservedly crowned European Champions on July 4th 2004! This achievement was one of the greater, if not the greatest, football upset in history. Captain Theodoros Zagorakis was named man of the tournament having led Greece and made the most tackles in the tournament.

The triumph of Greece in Euro 2004 is the biggest sporting achievement in the country's history for a team sport, along with the successes of the Greek national basketball team in the 1987 and 2005 European Championships and the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

Unfortunately, the Greek national team failed to impress in the following two competitions, the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany were they lost 3-0 to Brazil, 1-0 to Japan and managed a 0-0 draw with Mexico and in their qualification group for the 2006 World Cup were they finished fourth four points behind group winners Ukraine and two points behind Turkey. Throughout the last match of that campaign the 30.000 fans at the Karaiskakis Stadium chanted the name of Otto Rehhagel in their utmost support which led Otto to say afterwards 'Even if 10 years pass, part of my heart will be Greek'.

Coming as the highest ranked seed out of the pot for Euro 2008 qualifying groups Greece were drawn with Turkey, Norway, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary, Moldova and Malta. The excellent start with victories over Moldova, Norway and Bosnia & Herzegovina was followed by a catastrophic defeat 4-1 to Turkey in Athens on the eve of the country's National Holiday celebrating our Independence from the Ottoman Empire. Symbolic for some, but Greece was reborn from its own ashes to go on and win the rest of their games, except for a credible 2-2 draw at Norway having hit the post three times, which included a 1-0 defeat of Turkey in their own backyard and took the first place in their group by storm and finishing with the most points than any other team amongst all the qualifying groups. This saw them rise to the 11th place of the FIFA World Rankings and after a preparation match for Euro 2008 which saw them beat Portugal 2-1 they managed to reach the 8th place which has been the best place they have ever achieved in the FIFA World Rankings.

A dismal display in the European Championships of 2008 was followed by Greece's early exit having failed to win a single point and having scored only once in three matches. Defeats were 2-0 to Sweden, 1-0 to Russia and 2-1 to Spain. The record shows that Greece were the first defending champion not to win a single point in the next European Championship.

The qualification for 2010's World Cup in South Africa was a major achievement for the Greek national team, which saw them finish second in their qualifying group against Switzerland (finished first having beat Greece twice), Latvia, Israel, Luxembourg and Moldova, but progressed thanks to a solitary goal in their second game at Donetsk against Ukraine in the play-off round.

In South Africa this summer a poor performance against South Korea was punished with a 2-0 defeat, but a spirited comeback against Nigeria in the second game saw them overturn a 1-0 Nigerian lead to a 2-1 win with goals by Dimitris Salpingidis and Vasilis Torosidis. These were the first points and first goals scored ever for Greece in a World Cup tournament; a relief for the many who were anticipating a thrashing similar to our participation in the 1994 World Cup in the US. Awaiting a combination of results in the team's last game in the group against Argentina, Greece exhausted their possibilities until the 77th minute when they fell behind and finally lost 2-0 finishing third in their group and eliminated from the World Cup.

And in South Africa ended the nine-year servitude of Herr Otto Rehhagel to the Greek national team and although many will criticize his team's style of play it's well worth remembering what the man himself has said, "No one should forget that a coach adapts the tactics to the characteristics of the available players".

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