- Confidence in the New Ethniki OMADA -
by Sarantos Kaperonis
Greece kicks off in FIFA World Cup qualifying tomorrow with hopes of forgetting their tragic Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. The goal is clear-for Greece to return to the world's biggest stage and qualify for the FIFA World Cup. This team clearly has the ability to put factors that contributed to the downfall over the last 2 years in the past in order to complete this goal.
As they say in Greek, "to psari mirizei apo to kefali ".... There is no doubt that the officials governing Greek Football at the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) played a critical role off the pitch in the demise of Greek Football, including the National Team. Giorgos Sarris (and his administration) started the negative energy at the end of the last World Cup when he made Fernando Santos look like the “bad guy” in his departure from the team and things only continued to get worse once Giorgios Girtzikis took over. The Girtzikis-like members of EPO are slowly on their way out of the federation, which will lead to good results for ALL of Greek Football.
The keys of the National Team were given to Michael Skibbe after Greece went through three coaches in Euro Qualifying. Current Leicester City coach, Claudio Ranieri, seemed the perfect coach at the end of the 2014 World Cup and the "sacking" of Fernando Santos. However, at the beginning of qualifying he seemed completely unprepared for the four games in charge, including to a loss against the Faroe Islands. He spent a total of TWELVE DAYS in Greece while in charge, never taking the time to watch/scout the Greek players from up close. Since taking over, Michael Skibbe seems to have the determination that Ranieri lacked. Skibbe has been to numerous SuperLeague games, attended matches of Greek players abroad, traveled to Euro 2016 to scout out Belgium, and even attended various pre-season friendlies of the Greek clubs.
Skibbe has had eight months to prepare and get to know his players without wasting anytime. He has clearly stated that he will implement the "closed club" mentality that has led to Greece's success over the years. Unlike Euro qualifying, where over 50 players were called up, Skibbe will have set players that will be the base of the team and from there he will give opportunities to players that excel with their club teams and integrate them into the National Team. The players have confidence in him and he has confidence in his players and he has brought the aspect of a "team" back into the locker rooms.
If there was one thing missing in the post World Cup era at the National Team it was the actual "team" unity. There were clearly many problems in the locker room and it showed on the pitch during Euro qualifying. Fortunately, the players are united and that positive energy is back in the team. After the friendly victory over Holland, multiple players, including the veterans Tzavellas and Papastathopoulos, clearly stated that "we are once again a TEAM." This was evident in the friendlies against Australia, specifically when Tzavellas was the first to celebrate with Maniatis after his half-field goal (the two players had personal problems in the past), and also against the Netherlands when the players would celebrate as a whole after scoring. The positive energy is also seen in training.
Now that there have been many improvements off of the pitch, it needs to be translated on the pitch. This has been the case in Greece's recent friendlies, with their best showing coming in their final friendly against a powerful Dutch side in Holland. If Greece builds off of their performance against the Netherlands, there is no doubt that they will improve and be a heavy contender in the qualifying group. Without a doubt, Greece has talent. Four players play for Europe's top clubs (Papastathopoulos, Manolas, Samaris, Mitroglou) with many others playing in Europe's top Leagues. Additionally, many of the current players have been apart of Greece's recent success and will need to lead with their experience to bring Greece back to major tournament.
Despite a drop in the FIFA Rankings, Greece was lucky in the draw for World Cup qualifying, being placed in a fairly easy group considering the circumstances. Belgium are the clear favorites (although not a traditional powerhouse nation), with Greece expected to fight with Bosnia for second place which leads to a place in the playoffs. The schedule is also in Greece's favor. The Galanolefki will start off playing the three weaker teams in the group (at Gibraltar, v Cyprus, at Estonia) with a chance to continue to build confidence and prepare for the "bigger teams." Greece MUST win their first three games. With nine points and the momentum, they will then host Bosnia (with the backing of the Greek fans) knowing that a win will give Greece the early upper hand for 2nd in the group and keep them well in contention for first place.
The odds are against Greece going into qualifying, however over the years Greece has shined in these situations on multiple occasions (vs Ukraine, Russia, Croatia, Ivory Coast). With the drastic changes that have taken place at the team,Greece will now (on Tuesday) begin in their quest to overcome their biggest obstacle yet, to forget the last two years and qualify for their 3rd straight World Cup.