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Friday, December 4, 2009
Greece ready to grind for Rehhagel

By Mark Young
Special to

Theofanis Gekas
Theofanis Gekas, right, was benched in one qualifier, but Greece surely will need his scoring touch in South Africa.

Although it's the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Greece doesn't have an illustrious history when it comes to the World Cup. South Africa will mark only the second appearance at the finals for the Greeks, and they could hardly do any worse next summer than they did in their debut at USA 1994: a 0-3 record, no goals scored, 10 goals allowed and total humiliation.

That won't happen this time around. These days, Greece is no pushover, for which it has one man to thank: Otto Rehhagel. Few coaches anywhere enjoy the status and autonomy of "King Otto," whose authority was cemented after leading the unheralded Greeks to the Euro 2004 title. That championship was such a surprise that even now it still is hard to believe. But by playing a highly disciplined defensive game that proved impenetrable on the field and mind-numbingly boring to watch off it, the Greeks did prevail. While Rehhagel and his players won few friends outside of Greece, back home they became national heroes.

Since 2004, Greece has failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and made a quick exit from Euro 2008. And in a relatively weak 2010 World Cup qualifying group, Greece finished second behind Switzerland. That put Rehhagel's crew in a playoff with Ukraine, which salvaged a 0-0 tie in the first leg and dampened Greece's finals hopes as the teams headed to Ukraine for the second leg.

The Greek media turned on Rehhagel, blasting him for playing an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 formation at home. But the 71-year-old coach isn't the type to let media criticism impact his decisions. For the return leg in Ukraine, he dropped striker Theofanis Gekas to the bench and rekindled the old Euro 2004 magic formula, with Dimitrios Salpingidis scoring in the 31st minute and Greece's lockdown defense taking care of the rest. The Greeks won 1-0 and Rehhagel celebrated his 100th game at the helm with a trip to South Africa.

A hard-nosed, no-nonsense defender in his playing days, Rehhagel prefers physical players to finesse players. He invariably uses tall center backs to anchor the defense and a big target man to lead the offense. What his midfield lacks in creativity, it makes up for in energy and hustle. Rehhagel demands that his players put constant pressure on the ball and, whenever possible, spread the opposition and then play in high balls from the wings for the tall striker to attack. The system worked at Euro 2004 and will be employed again in South Africa.

One of the few holdovers from the Euro 2004 championship squad is 6-foot-3 striker Angelos Charisteas. He scored the winning goal in the Euro 2004 final victory (1-0 over hosts Portugal), and he remains Greece's target man. Prolific marksman Gekas plays off the target man and was the leading goal scorer in European qualifying (with 10). At the back, Rehhagel will rely on a combination of Liverpool's 6-4 Sotirios Kyrgiakos, 6-5 Euro 2004 holdover Traianos Dellas and the Serie A pair of 6-5 Vangelis Moras and 6-foot Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Kostas Katsouranis is the midfield enforcer, while captain (and Euro 2004 veteran) Georgios Karagounis provides the creative spark. Celtic's 6-4 Georgios Samaras usually plays out wide for Greece, but can also move up top to lead the line.

The opening ceremony of Euro 2004 featured a Portuguese galleon. So when Greece beat Portugal 2-1 in the first game, the Greek media dubbed the national team "The Pirate Ship." It seems unlikely that the Greeks will pull another such massive surprise in South Africa, but one thing is sure: The players won't trim their sails. They'll be giving everything for Rehhagel and their passionate fans. And Rehhagel will have no concern about winning friends or style points. For the German coach, only the result matters. He will wring every last ounce from his players to make it a winning one.

Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.