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The Calm, Steady, Reliable Greece

Sometimes a national team looks nothing like the country it represents.
(Photo: Kostas Koutsaftikis/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kostas Koutsaftikis/Shutterstock)

The tradition of pairing a soccer nation with its attendant cultural mores is a practice as old as any fan alive today. The Spanish play a game of tapas, small bites and sips and quick stop-offs—and then the chair is empty. The Brazilians don’t defend because they’re too busy dancing to the collective drumbeat. The disciplined Japanese are like a sporting mirror reflecting back their buttoned-down corporate culture.

Attempting to extract a definitive playing style from Greece’s relatively volatile 20th century is like parachuting out of a plane and trying to land on a moving target. Precisely when you seem to have the thing pinned down, the wind shifts and your perception changes. In the 20th century, Greece was involved in four spasmodic wars, saw its monarchy torn down, underwent three jarring military coups, and navigated through a simmering 30-year civil war over communism.

By the time Greece emerged from decades of continual turmoil in the 1980s, governmental corruption took root, and the country’s entire banking system eventually began buckling under its weight in 2010. Even the monasteries were in on the con. The Vatopedi monastery fleeced the government out of about 100 million Euros in a land swap that ended with money laundering indictments and jail time. Minister of the State Theodore Roussopoulos resigned immediately once the report broke.

In the midst of the chaos that is international soccer, the Greeks remain a blue and white oasis of calm.

Before the national team’s very recent renaissance, Greek soccer had been the province of its clubs for decades. Greece didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1994, and they’d never so much as been in a major international tournament before the 1980 Euros. Combined with its volatile political history and an increasing desire for competitive soccer the national team wasn’t providing, the majority of Greece’s impassioned soccer fans threw the bulk of their support into what’s become known as the Derby of the Eternal Enemies: Panathinaikos and Olympiacos.

The clash between working class Olympiacos—from the sinewy port town of Piraeus—and the historically more well-heeled Panathinaikos came to embody the kind of political backlash against imperial dogma the country was experiencing, just on a more visceral level. Well after countries like England and Germany shed long-held public personas for everyday hooliganism, Greece still makes news rounds for flares and crowd violence. In January, pre-game riots ignited in the moments before a third division match between Aigaleo and AEK Athens in an Athenian suburb. A security guard hired for the match was among six arrested for participating in the fracas alongside Aigaleo fans. He was later accused of attempted murder.

WHEN THE GREEKS QUALIFIED for the 1994 World Cup, the locus of the nation’s soccer attention shifted irrevocably. It would never again be so focused on the club game alone. Their record—three loses in three games, 10 goals conceded, none scored—only reinforced the public’s opinion that Greece didn’t just deserve to be at the World Cup; it should show well. That it had not was a national dilemma, never mind that not a single player on the team’s roster had ever played on the stage before.

Ten years later, the team pulled off arguably the most incredible feat in the history of international soccer, winning the 2004 European Championships. (Some even consider the Euros a more difficult competition than the World Cup because of the level of competition.) Hardly favored to get out of the group, the Greeks erected a defensive shell. As France, the Czech Republic, and Portugal lobbed fire in the knockout rounds, the Greeks simply bobbed and weaved. They drew international ire for their playing style, which was dire only in the sense a tottering fishing boat staying upright in the midst of a storm might be described as such. You expect the thing to sink, and it never does. And by the time the clouds pass, you see the grizzled fishermen puttering to shore in a boat teeming with fish.

The Greeks have hardly replicated that success in the intervening years, and the teams have become slightly more technical with the addition of players like mazy dribbler Ioannis Fetfatzidis from Genoa. And yet the Greeks still manage to crank out these calm performances, like the improbable 1-0 win over a technically superior Russia at Euro 2012 to advance to the knockout stage. A 1-0 Greece win is practically tucked into pastries in the Syntagma Square at this point.

CONVENIENT GREEK TROPES OF white sun-washed houses spilling down lush island hills in the Mediterranean and dense philosophical lectures in Athens kafes have their place in the country today. But the current Greek national consciousness has been just as inundated by the plastic curvature of a riot shield or the litter-strewn streets separating a mass of protestors from police. Greece’s new history is as much a culture of turbulence as it is of philosophy and art.

The explanation for the Greek soccer-playing style, of course, goes beyond cultural reasons. Short-burst athleticism has never been a Greek strong suit, but endurance has, and both Otto Rehhagel and Fernando Santos—who’ve combined to coach every Greek World Cup team since 2002—opted to play into that strength rather than sculpt it into a distorted piece of marble with someone else’s aesthetic in mind. Rehhagel and Santos both took a technically deficient side without a single famous name and are a combined 77-36-35 since 2001. That’s a winning percentage of 53.5, which is 17 percent above the national average since 1929.

In Brazil, the expectation is that the Greeks will do what they’ve always done: Absorb pressure with a talented stable of defenders, led by Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis, and use ageless midfielders Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis to quickly move the ball to strikers Georgios Samaras and Dimitris Salpingidis from deep. In the midst of the chaos that is international soccer, the Greeks remain a blue and white oasis of calm.

As the nation itself seems to be stretching toward two very different political extremes, the success of the national team this summer will largely depend on the team coming together and functioning as one cohesive unit. In some ways, the current team defines itself in opposition to everything that’s going on back home.

As the looming domestic crisis first swirled around the Greeks in the run-up to the 2012 Euros, Santos issued a simple statement of faith that still seems to echo today.

"Look, the situation has affected us," Santos told CNN. "The players have family, they have friends, and they worry about what is going on. I would say Greece is going through more than just a political or economic crisis. There is a social crisis with a lot of unemployment. The players are human beings and they feel that. What I have asked them to do is to try to forget about that when they play and to focus just on football, to show they are real fighters."