By Mike Collett
POLOKWANE (Reuters) - Greece's exit from the World Cup will almost certainly bring the curtain down on the long and largely successful reign of their German coach Otto Rehhagel after nine years in charge.
Although he refused to comment on his immediate future after the 2-0 defeat to Argentina in Group B on Tuesday sealed their fate, the defeat is probably the end of the road for the 71-year-old coach and a number of his senior players, the survivors of the side that ended as the surprise winners of Euro 2004 in Portugal six years ago.
Greece were always outsiders to qualify for the second round, but they might have caused a surprise and done just that with a more attacking approach against a relaxed Argentina who had as good as ensured their place in the last 16 with coach Diego Maradona resting a number of key players.
Greece's progress depended on the result of the other match in the group between Nigeria and South Korea in Durban and with that game ending 2-2, Greece would have finished second if they had won.
However, Rehhagel, famed for being one of the most successful defensive managers of recent times, again adopted a largely negative approach when only an attacking policy was likely to work.
After nine years and 106 matches at the helm Rehhagel's time appears up. He is the most successful Greece coach ever as well as the longest-serving, but he would not be drawn on his future plans on Tuesday.
His success with the one-time European minnows has made the German a much-loved figure in Greece but his stubborn coaching style and his choices of players have also earned him many vocal opponents.
Alongside Rehhagel there are a number of players who will be seriously considering their international futures including captain Giorgos Karagounis.
His dominant presence on the pitch was always crucial to Greece's qualification in South Africa, but at the age of 33, he cannot play more than a half at top level any more.
Kostas Katsouranis and Giourkas Seitaridis will also likely join their captain bringing an end to the era of players who won the Euro 2004 championship in Portugal.
With a string of young players competing in top European leagues and major league clubs including Socratis Papastathopoulos, Vangelis Moras, Nikos Spyropoulos and Sotiris Ninis, Greece will be looking to build on their recent good run in qualifying for major tournaments.
"We tried our best against a great team like Argentina. We gave it 200 percent but Argentina were just better," said defender Papastathopoulos, expected to play a leading role in the post-Rehhagel era.
"We did not come here as a top team but we still managed to beat Nigeria, score two goals and I hope we gave our fans something to cheer about. We all gained so much from this World Cup."
Fellow defender Moras added: "I think this team has a bright future.
"We left our soul on the pitch from the first until the last minute yesterday and all our players deserve congratulations for their effort. We had the dream of advancing but it just did not work."
At least they return home with their first World Cup victory and goals after losing all three games without scoring on their World Cup debut in the United States in 1994.
That represents some advance on the past and although this era could well be ending, a new one will start with Greek soccer in a far better shape than its economy.
(With additional rfeporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Michael Holden)