For Greece, It’s Already Mission Accomplished
by George Tsitsonis
After a whirlwind weekend, Greece is on the cusp of clinching 2nd place in Group H, needing only a victory on Tuesday against Gibraltar at home to ensure they are in the October 17th draw for the World Cup Playoffs along with seven other European nations.
Saturday and Sunday saw Greek supporters get exactly what they wanted. First, Belgium defeated Bosnia in Sarajevo 4-3 in order to give the Ethniki the chance to jump into 2nd place with a win over Cyprus. Michael Skibbe’s side then managed to make hard work of that task, but ultimately came away with the 2-1 win in Nicosia. Finally, on Sunday, the door opened to finish as one of the top eight 2nd-placed teams as Slovenia and Scotland played out a 2-2 draw, one of the possible results that Greece needed.
Now all that stands between Greece and a playoff berth is a victory, by any score, against Gibraltar. For supporters who have endured losses to the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg in the last few years nothing will be taken for granted. With all due respect though, the result against Gibraltar, does appear to be a formality. The tiny British Overseas Territory located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula has had a full national side since 2013. The team has won one match in that time, a 2014 friendly versus Malta. They have lost 24 of their 28 official matches, scoring eight goals and conceding 120 in the process.
Barring an upset the likes of which we have never seen, Greece will defeat Gibraltar on Tuesday. Then 180 minutes will separate the Ethniki from a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But, whether Greece end up booking their ticket to a 4th World Cup or not, appears at this point to be fairly irrelevant.
All Greek fans want their team to be at the world’s biggest sporting event next summer. Greeks around the world will be supporting their team in what will certainly be a difficult Playoff in November.
However, what Greece have gained during this qualifying campaign is much more important than another berth at the World Cup. What we have seen over the last 18 months is a team coming together from the ashes of a catastrophic EURO 2016 qualifying campaign.
It was not only the defeats to minnows during those qualifiers and friendly matches in the post-2014 World Cup period that upset supporters. It was the infighting (sometimes on the pitch) and descent from a unified squad to a loose collection of players that looked disinterested in representing their country. A team that had inspired so much pride and love since the turn of the millennium had been decimated from a lack of leadership.
Whilst Skibbe has earned widespread criticism for his team selection, tactics, and game management, he also deserves at least some of the credit for creating an atmosphere where the team dynamic, so important over the years for Greece, was able to thrive again.
The players have played a massive role in this for sure. The signs were there from the beginning of these qualifiers that the family atmosphere had come back to the team. When Giorgos Tzavellas struck a late, late thunderbolt a year go to earn a 1-1 home draw with Bosnia, it was former foe Giannis Maniatis who chased down the left-back first to celebrate with him. It was a sign of things to come. This moment, perhaps more than any other, showcased that the players were ready to put the past behind them and work on securing a better future for this team.
In particular, Sokratis Papastathopoulos has proved to be a superb leader over the last 12 months. His leadership on the pitch has been mirrored in his social media posts and comments to the media. His tone has always been measured and the Borussia Dortmund man has incessantly invoked his desire that Greece would rebound in these qualifiers and show they are back to being a team. He consistently stated that was his goal, with qualification being an extra reward should it happen.
Certainly, the rest of the old guard has helped. The new players called up during this campaign have been quick to mention the positive environment present in the Greek camp.
The odds are that Greece will defeat Gibraltar handily to claim a playoff spot. After that, the odds are that Greece, as an unseeded side, will find it difficult in the Playoffs. But, the team has been here before with regard to these matches. Ukraine and Romania were both swept aside by the team in the Playoffs for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Greek supporters will have hopes that this team can do the same regardless if they get paired with a team like Portugal, Switzerland, or Italy.
That said, the Galanolefki have already won. This is a team again. One who fights for each other and sticks together regardless of result. And a side that supporters are ready to embrace again and have pride in.
The football may not be pretty and they are not world-beaters, but Greece are back. After a disastrous few years, the Greek national team have rebuilt to give fans belief that better days lie ahead. Qualification for Russia would be a tremendous finish to these qualifiers, but even without that a great achievement remains.