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Mar 24, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Greece


Group C | Colombia | Ivory Coast | Japan


Team DNA

Defensive and impeccably organised under former manager Otto Rehhagel, Greece remain tough to breach with the likes of Sokratis Papastathopoulos at the back, but they are more expansive with Fernando Santos in command. Perhaps it's because he has more weapons at his disposal with which to attack.

Kostas Mitroglou promises goals and was decisive in Greece's playoff against Romania, while Panagiotis Kone and Giannis Fetfatzidis are players who can change a game from the start or off the bench.

Underestimate Greece at your peril. Consistently in the top 15 of FIFA's world rankings, they are an awkward team for anyone to face. Their spirit is indomitable, and no one personifies that better than their veteran captain Giorgos Karagounis.

Starting scenario

History

At Greece's first World Cup in 1994, they lost every game and didn't score a goal. They reached their next Cup in South Africa in 2010. They got off to a bad start, splitting their first two group matches, and left themselves needing a win in their final match against Argentina. It didn't happen, ending their tournament.

How they reached Brazil

As was the case in 2010, Greece required a playoff to reach the World Cup. A record of eight wins in 10 games meant Greece finished level on points with group winners Bosnia-Herzegovina, who edged them by virtue of a better goal difference and on head-to-head matchups.

A comprehensive 3-1 defeat in Zenica meant Greece had to play catch-up. Bosnia slipped up only once -- at home to Slovakia -- and held their nerve to reach their first World Cup. With 25 points, Greece were the best runner-ups in UEFA qualifying, but perhaps that was to be expected considering their other opponents (Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein) weren't up to much.

Standing between Greece and a trip to Brazil were Romania. How they went about their business in the playoff was impressive. After winning 3-1 in Athens, Greece took the lead in Bucharest and their plane tickets were as good as booked.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Greece have only beaten one team at the World Cup: Nigeria in 2010. Down 1-0 in that game, they came back to win after their opponents went down to 10 men. Memories of that game perhaps explain why the Greek Football Federation have organised a warm-up fixture against Nigeria in Pennsylvania at the beginning of June.

It's a reminder that Greece can win games at a World Cup, and they need to take that belief into their group. Rather than projecting ahead to a grudge match against anyone they have a history with, their focus will be to beat one or two among their Group C opponents (Colombia, Ivory Coast and Japan), which will be easier said than done. One thing that can be said about this group -- there should be a great contrast in styles.

Kostas Mitroglou
Kostas Mitroglou

Most important player

The temptation here is to go with Mitroglou's Fulham teammate Karagounis, an icon of the national team. But considering how goal-shy Greece were in qualifying, scoring only 12 goals in 10 games, it is vital that Mitroglou overcomes his fitness problems and shows the prolific club form he had with Olympiacos, finding the back of the net 21 times in 23 appearances.

It was that devastating strike rate which caught the eye in the Champions League and persuaded Fulham to pay him £12 million, making the 26-year-old the highest-paid Greek player of all time. In a World Cup group that includes Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) and potentially a recovering Radamel Falcao, Greece need a striker of their own to put fear into opponents' defences. Japan don't have one. Greece just might.

Definition of success

The World Cup group stage has been a glass ceiling for Greece. Not once have they broken through it. That only serves to underline what a remarkable achievement it was for them to come out of nowhere and win the European Championship a decade ago in Portugal. Could there be a repeat? It seems improbable, very improbable.

• Video: Greece odds in World Cup (Australia only)

Widely expected to stand down after this summer, Santos said: "My only aim is to see Greece qualify for the knockout phase, and I will do everything in my power to achieve that and make Greece fans happy."

Solid and dependable with nothing flashy about them. Greece's only hope is that their fellow opponents in Group C take them for granted.

How far will Greece go?

Group stage.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman

The midfield still relies on captain Giorgos Karagounis, who's about 106 -- OK, OK, he's 37. We're talking about a lot of the same old players from the past few tournaments, when they were honestly very average -- a lot of group-stage and first-round exits. Their midfield just lacks some much-needed pace and creativity.

Fernando Santos has tried to install his Portuguese free-flowing style, but in all honesty, it hasn't made a huge difference -- I think they play the way they've played since they won Euro 2004. That defensive style won't hold up anymore. They just don't have enough quality to go far in June.

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