After their 3-0 defeat away to Romania on November 2 1988, the Greek FA went on to release manager Miltos Papapostolou from his duties. They promptly succeeded him with 55 year old Alekos Sofianidis, who many years earlier had been his team mate at AEK. Sofianidis, born in Turkey, was held in high regard by the FA for his work on youth teams, and his first task as a manager for the senior national side was to lead the home friendly against Hungary on November 15. He included two starting debutants and a further two debutants would appear off the bench, as well as seeing a host of players making their only second international appearance. Sofianidis’ new look side would romp to a 3-0 victory in a game which two of the goals came from defensive midfielder Giotis Tsaloukhidis. As it were, the Greek Football Federation had arranged for no less than eight winter and spring friendlies between the two qualification ties with Romania (away on November 2, and the return fixture at home on April 26 1989). This was far more than any other European nation. Tsaloukhidis would prove as one of two mainstays in the Greek side over the course of the winter, featuring from start in all eight matches. This feat he would share with aggressive full-back Iakovas Khatziathanasiou, a player who was equally adapt on both sides, but who, despite favouring his right foot, would mainly be seen at left-back.
The list of winter and spring friendlies read as follows:
15/11-88: Hungary (h) 3-0 (Lagonidis, Tsaloukhidis 2)
18/1-89: Albania (a) 1-1 (Tsiantakis)
25/1-89: Portugal (h) 1-2 (Borbokis)
8/2-89: England (h) 1-2 (Saravakos (pen.))
22/2-89: Norway (h) 4-2 (Samaras, Vakalopoulos, Tsaloukhidis, Saravakos)
8/3-89: East Germany (h) 3-2 (Saravakos 2, Wahl (o.g.))
29/3-89: Turkey (h) 0-1
5/4-89: Yugoslavia (h) 1-4 (Mitropoulos)
Goals: Saravakos 4, Tsaloukhidis 3, Lagonidis, Tsiantakis, Borbokis, Samaras, Vakalopoulos, Mitropoulos and one own goal
Their seven home and one away fixture had yielded three wins, a draw, and four defeats (14-14). Sofianidis had been in charge for the first seven of them, instantly being relieved from his responsibilities before the final spring fixture at home to Yugoslavia. Antonis Georgiadis (56) became the newly appointed manager, and would be in charge for the remainder of the qualification. From the outside looking in, it did seem a baffling decision to let a manager lead a team through a host of friendlies, and then replace him with another just as they were returning to ‘the real thing’. Georgiadis would only have had the opportunity to influence the team so much.
A total of 30 players had featured for the Greek national team during these eight friendlies, and the list reads as follows:
8 matches: Giotis Tsaloukhidis, Iakovas Khatziathanasiou
7 matches: Nikos Nioplias, Nikos Tsiantakis, Spyros Oikonomopoulos (6+1), Giorgos Koutoulas (4+3), Stefanos Borbokis (4+3)
6 matches: Stratos Apostolakis
5 matches: Kostas Mavridis, Giannis Kallitzakis, Giannis Samaras, Pagonis Vakalopoulos (1+4), Dimos Kavouras (1+4)
4 matches: Dimitris Saravakos
3 matches: Kostas Lagonidis, Stelios Manolas (2+1), Andreas Bonovas (2+1), Spyros Maragkos (1+2), Vangelis Kalogeropoulos (1+2)
2 matches: Giannis Gitsioudis, Aris Karasavvidis, Paris Georgakopoulos (1+1), Kostas Oikonomidis (1+1), Giorgos Papadopoulos (+2)
1 match: Kostas Kolomitrousis, Tassos Mitropoulos, Vasilis Dimitriadis (+1), Elias Savvidis (+1), Fanis Tountziaris (+1), Nikos Sarganis (+1)
Captain and the country’s leading striker was easily Dimitris Saravakos. The 27 year old Panathinaikos forward lead the line by example, and notched four goals in his four appearances. A few other players were also more or less part of a core, although this group were also facing uncertainty with a new boss in charge. Oikonomopoulos seemed the favoured choice as goalkeeper, with Apostolakis and Khatziathanasiou as full-backs. Koutoulas and Kallitzakis had been the most frequently used central defenders during the winter and spring, but neither would take to the field in the Romania home match, where Manolas and Mavridis would appear. Tsaloukhidis and Nioplias had been the central midfield duo, but the latter would be out of favour with the new boss, only making one appearance in the final four qualification matches (and scoring the winning goal as well in the 1-0 home win against Bulgaria). To the left in midfield, Tsiantakis seemed a natural choice, and he would continue in this position for the visit of the Romanians. Later, though, Georgiadis would turn to him for the playmaker role.
Rather than the 4-4-2 utilised by Sofianidis, Georgiadis would make use of a 4-3-3 against the Romanians, with Saravakos playing as a right-sided forward (and Tsiantakis opposite, it has to be added). (Giorgos) Papadopoulos and Savvidis would make up the central midfield, ahead of anchor man Tsaloukhidis. That two players who had featured so sparingly during this bout of friendlies would be found in the vital engine area in the Romania qualifier was another talking point. In the main striker’s role was Samaras. One player bound to have felt disappointed, will have been Borbokis, who had participated in seven of the eight friendlies. He would not be seen on the pitch for any of Greece’ final four qualifying matches.