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SIX YEARS AGO GREECE PROVIDED PERHAPS THE GREATEST CINDERELLA STORY IN THE HISTORY OF INTERNATIONAL SOCCER BY WINNING THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP. THE GREEKS WILL have to channel all the spirit of Euro 2004 to pull off a similar upset in South Africa.
Sure, Otto Rehhagel, the inscrutable manager, is still around, as are attacker Angelos Charisteas, who scored the winner in the Euro final, and midfielders Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgos Karagounis. But the World Cup is a bigger stage, the Greek players are older, and, well, lightning doesn't strike twice.
You know what to expect from Rehhagel: The Greeks will defend in numbers, with quasi-military organization. They'll congest the middle of the field, and they'll hope to grab a goal through a set piece or through a bit of magic from the old virtuoso, Karagounis. The slightest disruption of that plan—say, an early goal by its opponent—and the Greeks barely stand a chance. In fact, Greece might have already used up its quota of miracles to get this far: It had to upset Ukraine in a playoff on the frozen tundra of Donetsk to seal a place in South Africa.
Georgios Samaras, who has a reputation as an underachiever, leads the line. He's likely to be joined by the powerful Charisteas, whose career, at 30, is winding down, and the combative Dimitris Salpingidis, whose improbable goal against Ukraine proved decisive. Once a top-notch scorer, Theofanis Gekas seemed to have lost his way, but a move to Germany's Hertha Berlin in December revitalized him, and he could be the x-factor off the bench.
Karagounis's creativity makes him a threat, though at 33 he needs someone to do his defensive work for him. That man is the perpetual-motion machine Katsouranis, an emotional leader who is likely to have his work cut out for him. The wings belong to Loukas Vyntra and Nikos Spyropoulos, two recycled fullbacks.
Kostas Chalkias continues the Greek tradition of solid goalkeepers and will be fronted by a brawny three-man back line of Vangelis Moras, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The last of that group is potentially the best, but he is still only 21 years old.