Ethniki looking to move forward after stagnating in 2018
2018 was a year to forget for the Ethniki, as it seemed every step forward led to another two backwards. It has been nothing but misery for fans of the Greek National Football Team ever since the penalty shootout loss at the 2014 FIFA World Cup last 16 at the hands of Costa Rica.
The resulting two years were torture as the team finished bottom of its Euro 2016 qualifying group, however, improvement in 2018 World Cup qualifying was not enough for the Ethniki to qualify for the finals in Russia. The inaugural UEFA Nations league proved to be a failed with Greece finishing third in a group with Finland, Hungary, and Estonia.
The EPO is to blame for a large portion of this as there was no clear plan following the playoff debacle against Croatia in late 2017. In essence, they rewarded mediocrity by sticking with German coach Michael Skibbe, and this set the tone for a rather stagnant 2018.
Here is a breakdown of the key events in 2018.
Skibbe’s Renewal was Admitted as a Mistake
After an embarrassing loss to Croatia over 2 legs in November 2017, the EPO opted to give Skibbe a new contract (on less money) in an attempt to bounce back and qualify for Euro 2020 and begin the revolution in the UEFA Nations League.
The newly formed tournament provided the Ethniki with a golden opportunity to rebuild and it was hoped that youngsters would be given a chance with a fresh, attacking playing style implemented. The ‘glorified friendlies’ were a great platform to begin experimenting, however, Skibbe was sacked after 4 games since results were still horrendous and there was no tangible change in playing style or personnel.
A win in Estonia on the first Matchday simply papered over the cracks as this was followed up by an embarrassing loss in Hungary in Budapest. The lack of attacking intent and imagination in the final third proved to be a telling factor as the Hungarians exploited Greece’s weaknesses as evidenced by targeting Giorgos Tzavellas (Skibbe’s preferred left back option). The old guard led by Alexandros Tziolis all kept their places on the squad.
The tipping point proved to be the embarrassing loss in Finland. The Finns were patient and picked the Ethniki apart at will, knowing there would be no fightback. It almost has a “Faroe Islands” feel to it as it was as good as rock bottom and the EPO swiftly reacted by acknowledging their mistake and parting ways with Skibbe.
One can only wonder if there was any football criteria used when deciding to keep him as it appears a host of players from the Ethniki squad were consulted and recommended he was offered a new contract.
Nations League Disaster
As mentioned, this tournament provided a great opportunity for a proper rebuild. However, it also provided the Ethniki with a chance at qualifying for Euro 2020, should the team stumble in qualifying. In order to achieve this, a solid showing was necessary.
However, what transpired was nothing short of embarrassing as the team limped to a poor 3rd placed finish in a group of 4 nations. Only Estonia kept the Ethniki away from relegation to League D. The team finished with 3 wins and 3 losses with a goal difference of -1. The final matchday also proved to be disastrous as Estonia came to Greece and picked up a shocking win. Once again, there was no creativity in the final third and the defence crumbled to gift the plucky Estonians a goal in a rare attacking foray. At the same time, Hungary defeated Finland to leapfrog Greece into 2nd spot.
No progress was made at all and this was in line with the two friendlies prior to the World Cup held in Russia in June and July, where the Ethniki lost to Saudi Arabia and barely edged past Egypt in uninspiring circumstances.
Return of a Greek Coach
After parting ways with Skibbe, the EPO opted to go back to the basics by recruiting Angelos Anastasiadis, who became the first Greek to manage to Ethniki since Vasilis Daniil in 2001. Anastasiadis was chosen for his experience and sound understanding of Greek football. He is a former Greek international and has notably managed PAOK, Panathinaikos, Iraklis, Platanias, PAS Giannina, and Larissa, as well as the Cypriot National Team.
It is still too early to tell whether or not this move will be a success and the 65-year-old needs time, but a strong start to Euro 2020 qualifying will be pivotal especially since he only signed a one year contract.
Euro 2020 Qualifying Group Provides Challenges and Hope
As a result of a poor showing in the Nations League, the Ethniki found itself in Pot 4 for the Euro 2020 Qualifying draw. The draw was conducted in December 2018 in Dublin and the Ethniki will face Italy, Bosnia, Finland, Armenia, and Liechtenstein in qualifying. Only a top two finish, which results in qualifying for Euro 2020, will be seen as a success for Anastasiadis’ men.
The Italians will be heavily favoured for top spot, but they are not the powerhouses they once were. Additionally, the two games against the Bosnians will be eagerly anticipated by all as the two nations have developed quite a rivalry over the last few years as a result of facing each other several times in high-pressure matches.
Finland are familiar opponents and the team cannot afford to get complacent against Armenia and Liechtenstein as history has shown the minnows can upset an unfocused Ethniki. It is not an ‘easy’ group, however, it is far from insurmountable at the same time.
OAKA Disaster and Move to Pankritio
After a long stint in Piraeus at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium, the EPO decided to move home games to OAKA. It was hoped the shift to a more neutral venue would bring fans back in numbers but it had an adverse effect as poor crowds at such a large stadium resulted in shocking atmospheres and gave the team no home ground advantage.
It is well-known that the Ethniki struggles to attract a large fan base in Greece, even at the best of times so the move to the Olympic Stadium never really made sense. Consequently, the EPO opted for a move to the Pankritio stadium in Heraklion, Crete in late 2018. Moving forward, the Pankritio will be the Ethniki’s new home stadium for Euro 2020 qualifying. It is hoped the move to a smaller venue, away from Athens to a patriotic island will see larger attendances and better atmospheres.
Steady in the FIFA Rankings
The Ethniki started 2018 in 47th spot in January’s FIFA Rankings. They ended the calendar year in December in 43rd spot (up 4 places in the last 12 months). The team did not go lower or higher than the 40’s in 2018 but truth be told, this is not where the team should be ranked moving forward if it wants to be taken seriously.
42nd was the highest the team rose to from August 2018 to October 2018. This stagnation in the rankings best illustrates the team’s fortunes as it can be seen as a wasted year of stagnation.
2018 proved to be a failure for the Ethniki as they failed to meet basic goals while poor selections led to questions being asked if the Ethniki will ever return to its former glories. Moving forward, 2019 is a massive year with qualification for Euro 2020 a must after missing out on the past two major tournaments. In addition to this, there is still scepticism surrounding the new coach, Angelos Anastasiadis.