Glory still fresh
Ten years on from Greece's shock European Championship success, Pete Hall speaks to Giorgos Karagounis and examines the nation's legacy along with their chances of World Cup success
By Pete Hall - @PeteHall86
Last Updated: 29/04/14 2:53pm
On 12th June the first ball of the 20th FIFA World Cup will be kicked as hosts Brazil take on Croatia in Sao Paulo, 10 years on from when one of the greatest underdog stories the footballing world has ever seen was beginning to unfold.
Greece were tipped to simply make up the numbers in the 2004 European Championship in Portugal, who - along with their Iberian neighbours, Spain - were expected to oust the Greeks in what was ostensibly seen as one of the toughest groups at the tournament.
However, victory over Portugal in their Group A opener on 12th June 2004 saw Greece begin their incredible rise from international obscurity to European champions in the space of a month, breaking the hosts' hearts once more in the final.
Current captain and most capped player of all time Giorgos Karagounis set the Greeks on the path to glory with the opener against the Portuguese in the group stages, and explained to Sky Sports just what that surprising triumph meant and how it changed his and his team-mates' lives forever.
"It is very difficult to explain the emotions you go through when you win a championship such as the Euros. But the very moment the referee blew the final whistle in the final will be one I will never forget," said Karagounis.
That 1-0 final win in Lisbon not only put the Hellenic Republic on the football map, but gave supporters hope that this was the beginning of something much bigger, thus heightening the level of expectation bestowed upon the unsuspecting champions.
Failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany certainly brought the fanatical Greek support back down to earth, but now more than ever it is imperative that the national team give their suffering countrymen something to smile about.
With unemployment at a record high, harsh austerity measures causing more public unrest and recession still griping the faltering economy, it will be up Fernando Santos' side to bring some much needed cheer to the Greek people.
You only have to go as far back as the Athens derby earlier in the month to see how impassioned the population feel about their plight.
Police were targeted by angry Olympiakos fans at the end of the feisty encounter with rivals Panathinaikos, whose fans were not present, with social inequality blamed by the unruly fans for the trouble, believing the working classes are not getting a fair deal.
Greek journalist Antonis Tsirakis shares the frustrations of the majority of Greeks at the moment, and knows what sporting success can do for their depleted morale.
"Greeks will be looking forward to the games. The national team can make them happy even if everyone knows that their problems will still exist afterwards," he said.
That notion of bringing cheer to struggling masses is not lost on the players, and actually acted as motivation in their quest for World Cup qualification.
"It is very important that we qualified for this World Cup. It is important to make Greeks proud, and for them to enjoy watching their country play at the world stage. For the players, it is an incentive," Karagounis added, understanding the task at hand for his experienced side.
The Fulham midfielder may be struggling to exert his influence in the Premier League, with his side up against it in their effort to retain their top-flight status, but the veteran remains key to his country's chances of success in Latin America.
Focal point of the team, Karagounis pulls the strings in midfield, and acts as a barrier to a very resolute backline which kept eight clean sheets out of 10 in World Cup qualification.
Without the myriad of attacking options that other nations have at their disposal, a rigid rear-guard will be key once again, with Borussia Dortmund star Sokratis Papastathopoulos integral to their solidarity.
Five goals from Karagounis' new Fulham team-mate, Kostas Mitroglou, were also pivotal in securing a place in Brazil, none more so than the hit-man's brace against Romania in the first leg of the World Cup qualification play-off in front of their fervent fans in Athens.
December's draw for the finals gave Greece hope having been pitted alongside Colombia, Japan and Ivory Coast, with the South Americans, who seem set to be without star talisman Radamel Falcao, the only team ranked higher than the men from south east Europe.
"Yes, the expectations were increased and, considering that, we have been able to play at that for the past decade. To me, being able to maintain our high FIFA ranking is equally a great achievement," Karagounis pointed out, keen to emphasise their impressive ranking amongst the international football elite.
Greece will have to improve on their previous World Cup showings, having only emerged victorious once in their two previous appearances at the tournament finals.
"It's a tough draw, but the target is to qualify in the next round," Tsirakis added, not setting his sights too high.
Defiance has got Greece through in the past. In 2004 they scraped through the group stages, having only won one match, and then edged out their opponents 1-0 in every knockout stage on the way to clinching their first international crown.
One-nil to the Greeks was the most common scoreline throughout the whole of the World Cup qualification programme, and 10 years on the sequence has every chance of continuing.
"Our game plan is to score more goals than our opponents," Karagounis added, with 2004 glory still fresh in his mind, and such a simple philosophy could have dramatic results. Just ask the Portuguese.