Outclassed Greece return home to face the music
By Karolos Grohmann
SALZBURG (Reuters) - Defending champions Greece will return home to face stinging criticism after they failed to win a single point and scored only a solitary goal at Euro 2008.
Greece, who stunned the football world with their surprise victory four years ago, will see their presence at this event as a mere footnote, disappointing their fans in all three Group D matches, crashing out without as much as a fight.
Having arrived in Austria, fresh from a qualification campaign that saw them earn more points than any other team, the Greeks eyed a spot in the quarter-finals.
Instead they were dragged back to reality from match one when Sweden outplayed them, scoring twice in five minutes.
A five-man defence failed to stop the gutsy Swedes, who first scored with a stunning Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike before Petter Hansson added a second.
"Wonders don't happen every time. Otherwise they wouldn't be wonders," coach Otto Rehhagel said. "We never believed we would come here and reshuffle the deck of European football again."
Their next encounter against Russia, who had been thrashed 4-1 by Spain, was an even more one-sided affair with the Russians carving out chance after chance in a 30-minute second half spell, eventually winning 1-0.
Greece's defence was in tatters yet again while their three-pronged attack was left languishing in midfield.
Rehhagel brushed aside renewed criticism, saying his team had improved but the Greek media were already sharpening their knives.
The coach who helped lift Greece from 93rd in the FIFA rankings to close to the top ten, was angrily declining to answer questions about his team's dismal performance and his own future, despite a contract extension signed recently until 2010.
It took a fire-fighting effort from Greek FA president Vassilis Gagatsis, who backed Rehhagel, in charge since 2001, to restore order ahead of their final, meaningless, encounter against Spain.
Freed from the pressures of qualification, Greece did put in a better performance, albeit against a second string Spanish side, managing to score their first and only goal of the tournament.
It was fittingly a 42nd minute header by Angelos Haristeas, the striker who scored Greece's golden goal in the final four years ago in similar fashion, that put the Greeks in the lead.
Spain quickly recovered, equalising with a Ruben de la Red strike and clinching a well deserved win with Daniel Guiza two minutes from time.
"Our team did not present itself well," defender Traianos Dellas finally admitted. "We will learn from our mistakes and not repeat them in our World Cup qualifiers. You can only gain by your presence at such major tournaments."
With several players retiring from the squad, including keeper Antonis Nikopolidis, and more to follow suit, Rehhagel will not be able to avoid tough questions regarding the Austrian debacle once he returns to Greece.
Only a good start of their World Cup campaign in the autumn could put a damper on the increasing volume of criticism.