-- Rediscovering A Team --
by Giorgios Tsitsonis
Not too many conclusions can be drawn from Greece’s first three qualifiers en route to the 2018 World Cup. After all, while Michael Skibbe’s side have gone three for three to start their campaign, the wins have come against Gibraltar, Cyprus, and Estonia. With no disrespect to those nations, qualifying for Russia in less than two years’ time was always going to be decided in matches against the likes of Belgium and Bosnia, the top-ranked teams in the group and the very two sides that the Ethniki has yet to play against. And in reality, the first major test of qualifying will occur next month in a massive match when Greece host the Bosnians.
While the qualification road has a long way yet for Greece to travel, this current Ethniki have made an important first step and it has not only to do with maximum points from their first three fixtures. After the debacle that was the team’s EURO 2016 qualifying cycle, Greece, under Skibbe, have gone forward by looking back. The team’s lost identity has begun to resurface. After leaking goals left and right in the last campaign, the emphasis on a strong rearguard has helped Greece look like...the Greece of old. The defense is certainly not yet the finished product and even Cyprus and to a greater extent Estonia threatened to score goals that would have made those matches much more tense affairs. While there is nothing to suggest that this team is going to wow us with a new brand of attacking football, there is a growing catalogue of evidence pointing to a rebirth.
So much of this has to do with a seemingly new attitude. The infighting and external influences that damaged the national side for decades were largely swept away during the time of Otto Rehhagel and Fernando Santos. Critics can say what they want about the team’s style in that period, but the fact remains that unity was of the utmost importance and that led to the most successful era ever for the Ethniki. Skibbe has also ensured that the team is no longer a wide open door where every ‘flavor of the month’ gets called up. While not too restrictive as to not allow an up-and-coming player to be able to be brought in, there is a core in which the German believes.
Three wins against lower level opposition does not mean a huge metamorphosis has taken place. However those three victories are of greater importance when placed aside the results of the EURO 2016 qualifying campaign. Because then, against at times, lower-ranked opposition, this team capitulated time and time again.
None of this suggests yet that Greece have suddenly become favorites to claim top spot in the group or even second place for that matter. Belgium are clearly the strongest team in the section with a rich selection of world-class talent and Bosnia are a good side who are seen as second favorites in the section. All that said, the Ethniki is showing that they have learned how to battle again, how to compete with aspirations of qualifying for a major tournament again. The football produced has not been great or even at times good, but this qualifying cycle was always about rediscovering how to be a team.
The first indications are good. The unity that disappeared in the last two years seems to be returning, so too the grittiness and heart that for so many years characterized this group. Surely, there remains lots of work to do, but after a disastrous post-2014 World Cup period, the Ethniki is showing signs of life. The Estonia match perhaps was the most impressive match since Brazil 2014. Not so much in the performance, but in the ability to claim a result with several injuries before and during the match ruling out a whole host of players. Some players were forced to play out of position, while some less experienced recruits were drafted in playing next to players they hadn’t partnered with before. And yet, there were no excuses, no finger-pointing. Instead, the team did their job by picking up the three points in Tallinn.
A continuation of these sort of battling displays will only bode well for the team as qualifying now enters a crucial stage with games against bigger rivals on the horizon. For now, supporters of the team can be content with the gradual improvement and hopeful that the Ethniki is slowly becoming what made it successful in the last 15 years. Simply, Greece are rediscovering how to be a team once again.