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Greek drama rocks foundations

This is undoubtedly a great era for Spain. After the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs, it's hard to think of another side at the moment who can boast such a wonderful chapter in their history given the context of perennial underachievement.

Greece, though, is one team that can rival the Spaniards in that regard.

Yes, yes, supposedly the extent of their tactical sophistication is Angelos Charisteas' forehead (he's no longer a fixture in the starting line-up, by the way), putting ten men behind the ball and generally doing their best to earn their place as an asterisk alongside the term 'anti-football'.

Regardless of your predisposition towards the Greeks, you can't deny that the last six years have been the most incredible in their football history. To those familiar with the team, Zagorakis, Dellas and Seitaridis will be held in equally high esteem as their Spanish equivalents.

Crowned European champions, they have gone on to secure back-to-back qualification for that tournament and made only their second ever appearance at the World Cup in South Africa earlier this year. They currently sit in 11th spot on the FIFA World Rankings and can genuinely claim to be one of the world's top 30 outfits.

This is an unprecedented era of success for the Ethniki, with a crop of exciting young talents emerging and promising to build on the foundations laid by legendary German manager Otto Rehhagel.

A stark contrast to the disaster that was USA '94, where Alketas Panagoulias sent out an ageing, out-of-form and largely embarrassing side to be unceremoniously walloped. Greece's decades in the football wilderness are best summed up by an incredible video showing Panagoulias colourfully berating his side at half-time in one of those three matches.

Of course, being the birthplace of theatre, any Greek institution wouldn't truly be Greek without its share of drama. Football, it appears, is no exception.

Despite everything looking rather rosy after Rehhagel's retirement, with Greece seemingly on course to qualify for Euro 2012 and the aforementioned younger generation promising so much, a "sickness" within the national team has been brought to the attention of fans and media.

The recent retirements of Sotiris Kyrgiakos, Ioannis Amanatidis and Theofanis Gekas were accompanied by worrying statements in the aftermath of an acceptable World Cup campaign.

In their 30s and, in the case of Kyrgiakos and Gekas especially, in their prime as footballers, their decision to exit the international stage was totally unexpected. Indeed, Gekas and Kyrgiakos have largely been the driving force of the side in the aftermath of failure to qualify for Germany 2006, with passage to Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010 secured largely on the back of their goals and hard work.

Why was it, though, that they made their decision against such a successful backdrop?

The testimony of Amanatidis, who has been a comparative bit-part player over the past few years, would suggest that the climate within the current squad may not be conducive to continued success.

"It is not possible for players to be regular in the national team when they are not even in the 18-member squad of their clubs," Amanatidis told gazzetta.gr in November. "It is not possible!

"Need I give you names? Anyone can find them. There was no competition within that team.

"They would get on the airplane to go and play with the national team, knowing that some ten out of the 11 were certain to start. It did not matter whether they played with their clubs."

Amanatidis, who plays for Eintracht Frankfurt, went on to suggest that certain players were abusing their position within the squad, using friendly matches to put themselves in the shop window at club level.

While Liverpool defender Kyrgiakos was rather more diplomatic in his explanation after announcing his retirement, Gekas followed Amanatidis' act and didn't hold back.

"We are talking about a team that is sick and nobody does anything to heal it. What annoyed me the most was seeing people inside the national team set-up who knew the reasons I quit, and agreed with me, not having the courage to come out and support me.

"Instead they were the first ones to shoot at me and tried to blame it all on me with their statements."

It's an imposing situation for new manager Fernando Santos, who succeeded Rehhagel and has had all three players announce their retirement under his watch.

Whilst Gekas and Amanatidis haven't explicitly said as much, at the heart of the current player politics appear to be Euro 2004-winning duo Giorgios Karagounis and Kostas Katouranis, current team-mates at Panathinaikos.

Both played under Santos at club level and Katsouranis in particular thrived under the Portuguese manager when he was in charge at AEK Athens from 2004 to 2006. When Santos left to manage Benfica, he took Katsouranis with him.

Having said that, Santos has pointed out when questioned about the trio of retirements that both Gekas and Kyrgiakos have also played under him in the past. True as it is, his bond with Katsouranis is conspicuously strong and undeniable.

Conspiracy theorists would suggest that Gekas - who reportedly issued a "start me or I retire" ultimatum ahead of Greece's opening Euro 2012 qualifiers against Georgia and Croatia - and co have picked up on the increased influences of certain players and acted.

We can only speculate as to the real situation and the players involved. The problem for Katsouranis and Karagounis is that their performances for Greece have been on the wane for some time now, particularly in the former's case, doing nothing to improve their reputation in the eyes of disillusioned fans.

In the wake of inspirational captain Theodoros Zagorakis' retirement, Karagounis has been an outstanding leader on the pitch, shouldering a burden both defensively and offensively despite his ageing legs (which are finally catching up with him). Delaying his retirement only serves to make his energetic, match-winning performances easier to forget.

Katsouranis, though, has failed to transform his excellent club form onto the international stage over the past six years and the body language and general demeanour he displays on the pitch isn't encouraging at all. Often, the 31-year-old can be seen berating team-mates and largely waltzing about in a crucial midfield role that requires the box-to-box version of his old self.

The disastrous opening match of the World Cup against South Korea perhaps best highlighted that something was amiss within the side: Rehhagel bizarrely named an entirely alien back-line for one of the most important matches in Greece's history. Signs of the in-fighting that must have affected the German's personnel decisions made its way onto the pitch for the more perceptive viewers.

It never descended to the cringeworthy level of Panagoulias' half-time talks, but one imagines that, if there is a situation where certain individuals are heavily influencing the current manager's selections, another classic YouTube moment isn't too far away.

Of more concern is the impact this current malaise will have on the development of a generation of exciting young footballers - Sotiris Ninis, Ioannis Fetfatzidis and Kostas Mitroglou among them - who are expected to carry the national team into a new era.

If the pioneering work of Zagorakis and his 2004 team-mates is not to be wasted, Santos must assert his authority and end this Greek drama before it turns into a Euripidean tragedy.

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