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  • Writer's pictureKostas Lianos

How Greece dumped Otto Rehhagel's philosophy and set themselves up for Euro 2024 humiliation

It'd be very interesting if Gate 7 International ran a poll to figure out the age groups that follow this wonderful podcast. Not to sound like a cynic, but my money says the vast majority of our great audience are in their 20s. Therefore, a lot of them weren't really around when Greece shocked the world in Portugal and won Euro 2004 - a triumph that still stings some of the elite nations, such as a little island that insists to this day that if Wayne Rooney wasn't injured they would have "definitely" won it...

This old boy was 14 years old that time and remembers everything, from the 5-1 embarrassment in Finland back in 2001 up until that night in Lisbon when we punked out hosts Portugal in their own backyard - not once, but twice! And to all of you who still insist it was a fluke and "God fell asleep", go get a clue...

Greece becoming European champions fair and square almost 20 years ago wasn't much of a miracle if you look at the full picture. For one, Rehhagel was a serial winner in Germany having won two Bundesliga titles with Werder Bremen and another with underdogs Kaiserslautern.

I spoke to the legendary Giorgos Karagounis for The Sun three years ago and he reminded me how his generation also thrived in Greece's youth squads by making it to second place in the Euro Under-21 competition in 1998 before finishing third in the 1995 Euro Under-18 tournament.

Rehhagel also set up a team of winners that either played for major Greek clubs, which competed in the Champions League, or were part of top-level sides abroad. That is why prospects like Vasilis Torosidis and Avraam Papadopoulos weren't called up when they were part of Scoda Xanthi and Aris respectively. There were only a couple of exceptions to the German's rule, such as Sakis Prittas and Vasilis Koutsianikoulis. The list of players who never got the opportunity they deserved starts and ends with Ieroklis Stoltidis (Akis Zikos was called up several times during Rehhagel's early days until he refused to come on as a substitute during a friendly against Cyprus in 2001).

And so a group that mainly consisted of Panathinaikos' golden generation which made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League as well as the Europa League, combined with Olympiacos as well as AEK players who shone bright in Europe along with a number of Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A aces created the perfect recipe for the greatest underdog story in international football history.

And that team was mainly consisted of players in perfect ages, which allowed them to create a core for years to come, and mentors that would later welcome the next generation of stars, such as Fanis Gekas, Dimitris Salpingidis, Kostas Mitroglou, Giorgos Samaras and more, in a manner that allowed for a perfectly smooth transition that would protect Ethniki's future for at least a couple of decades.

Fernando Santos quickly understood there was no reason to fix something that wasn't broken and adhered to the same principals when he replaced Rehhagel in 2010, which led to some relatively easy qualifications to Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup where we made the quarter-finals and Last 16 respectively.

And then people whose football knowledge was about as full as Donald Trump's head took over EPO only to quickly turn Greece into a global laughing stock. Funnily enough there were still signs of Rehhagel's philosophy still present within the team, the only difference was that everything was the other way around...

Experienced and successful stars like Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Kostas Manolas, Jose Holebas, Vasilis Torosidis, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, Giannis Maniatis, Dimitris Siovas, Mitroglou, Samaras and many other notable names were casually and unceremoniously axed. All of whom carried a raft of accolades in the Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A.

And all of those recognised stars would soon be replaced by admittedly talented but largely inexperienced players who found no mentors to show them the ropes. Frequent call-ups like Lazaros Rota, Dimitris Kourbelis, Dimitris Pelkas, Tasos Bakasetas, Tasos Chatzigiovanis, Petros Mantalos, Fotis Ioannidis and Dimitris Limnios have either never won a Champions League game or never even competed in Europe's esteemed tournament. And Bakasetas as well as Mantalos are Greece's captain and vice-captain respectively...

To make matters worse, the best Greek player of this generation Kostas Fortounis was suddenly dropped in ugly fashion with current EPO president Takis Baltakos even stating Gus Poyet "was proven right" not to call him up. That eventually led to one of the most anticlimactic international retirements in the country's history and anyone with a glimmer of critical thinking knows this wasn't simply a decision Fortounis made when he woke up one day and looked in the mirror...

Other talented players in Tasos Douvikas, Christos Tzolis and Giorgos Vagiannidis have been iced out while it took quite some fan pressure to finally have Giannis Konstantelias established as a key figure in the squad. One must wonder how much effort is being dedicated in convincing foreign Greek talent like Slavia Prague ace Christos Zafeiris - a central midfielder by the way - to play for the country of his birth after competing for Norway's youth sides. The same goes for Genk ace Konstantinos Karetsas, who plays for Belgium's Under-17s, after EPO took ages to finalise George Baldock's papers.

This occurred while washed-up veterans kept being called up, such as Giorgos Tzavellas who currently plays for Atromitos and was even included when he was a free agent!

Greece had a golden opportunity to finally qualify for a major international competition for the first time in 10 years. Poyet did a brilliant job in the Nations League by winning our group against Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Cyprus to earn promotion to League B. And the national team finished third in our qualifying group after some dismal matches with the Netherlands but two impressive outings with France, whom they took to the sword with an unexpected draw at OPAP Arena after making quick work of the Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar across both legs.

The play-offs seemed right up our alley with Kazakhstan in the semi-finals and either Georgia or Luxembourg in the final. Greece's history, mentality and tradition demanded that if we played all of them we needed to return three victories. And when the time came for Greece to return to the same competition they won 20 years ago, everyone froze in Tbilisi.

Poyet's regulars like Kostas Tsimikas, Dinos Mavropanos, Bakasetas, Mantalos, Kourbelis, Ioannidis, Giorgos Masouras and Pelkas went numb throughout the match. But that shouldn't shock us considering this was a team largely consisted of players that didn't know how to win the big matches at elite level.

Ethniki finally showed some life with the inclusion of Manolis Siopis and Andreas Bouchalakis in Poyet's uninspiring midfield but that wasn't enough to turn things around during a match that our team couldn't hit the back of the net to save their own lives - all while the Eredivisie's top scorer Vangelis Pavlidis was sitting on the bench and was omitted in favour of Giorgos Giakoumakis who came on despite living his last playing days in the MLS.

It's easy to blame it all on Poyet, but the same recipe was also present during John van't Schipp's dismal stint that saw us playing derbies with Kosovo. And that is why there is no guarantee that Rehhagel's reverse philosophy won't continue with whoever replaces the Uruguayan tactician.

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