Costa Rica vs Greece: Will Greece spread wings or park bus?

Greeks beat Ivory Coast by playing wide and handsome, but early score against Costa Rica might tempt them to revert to type

"Oh my God, yes!" ran the front page headline in Greece’s SportDay newspaper on Wednesday, the morning after the country’s success in reaching the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time. Elsewhere in the world, a more likely response might have been: “Oh my God, no!”.

LIVE: Follow the latest news from Netherlands vs Mexico and Costa Rica vs Greece

After all, Greece – 10 years on from an improbable Euro 2004 triumph built on solid defending and set-pieces – could easily be regarded as unwelcome gatecrashers at a World Cup party marked by exciting, attacking football. This tournament has seen more goals per game (2.83) in the group stage than any World Cup since 1958, yet Greece’s goals-per-game average on this stage is 0.44.

Indeed, before overcoming Ivory Coast 2-1 after Georgios Samaras’s injury-time penalty to snatch second place in Group C, they had found the net in only one of eight previous World Cup matches in their history.

One player from today’s last-16 opponents, Costa Rica, Yeltsin Tejeda, unwittingly summed up this feeling of a team swimming against the tide when he admitted the Central American side had been thinking about facing Colombia or Ivory Coast but now had “to change the video cassette”.

To understand the Greek approach you have to rewind 20 years to the country’s first World Cup appearance, at USA 94. When Greek journalists came home complaining about “4-4-2”, it had nothing to do with tactics but rather the beatings their team suffered: 4-0 against both Argentina and Bulgaria and 2-0 against Nigeria.

When Greece returned to international competition at Euro 2004 there was no way their German coach, Otto Rehhagel, would let them make the same mistake again; thus they sat back, defended resolutely and hit opponents on the counterattack or with a set-piece goal. Somehow it all came together as they claimed the European crown with three successive 1-0 wins – against France, Czech Republic and Portugal.

Given Greece’s supply line of good defensive players and simultaneous struggle to produce a world-class striker, it is no surprise they retained the safety-first template. Even in qualifying for Brazil they managed just 12 goals in 10 group games yet conceded only four.

 

Greece’s Euro 2004 captain, Theo Zagorakis, believes that, instead of criticism for their style, Greece deserve praise for their  unprecedented run of reaching five of the past six major tournaments. Now a newly elected MEP for the country’s ruling New Democracy party, he told The Independent on Sunday: “It’s easy to be critical and attach labels, but football isn’t chess, where each team has the exact same type of players. That’s the magic of football, and the difficulty is to combine players with different abilities, ages, personalities in order to produce a solid team and beat your opponent. Just look at the teams that are already out of the tournament. Rehhagel used to say that modern tactics are the tactics that win a game.”

Zagorakis saw similarities with his 2004 side on Tuesday in “the team spirit and huge desire of the players” as they recovered from injuries to midfielder Panagiotis Kone and goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, and the setback of a late Ivory Coast equaliser, to win at the death. It is a spirit summed up, he added, by his old colleague Georgios Karagounis, still driving the side on at 37 and “the absolute example of how a player gives his soul for the team”.

Yet it must be added that Greece showed us something more than just spirit in Fortaleza. As another of their Euro 2004 winners, Stelios Giannokopoulos, points out, against Ivory Coast they revealed a refreshing attacking dimension in a game they had to win.

“Like with our team from 2004, the team today are a little bit underestimated,” Stelios said. “All around the world people say we play ugly football, but we saw quality football. We hit the post three times. We proved them wrong.” In the process a team who kicked off the World Cup with a 3-0 loss to Colombia took a historic step into the last 16.

The role of the head coach, Fernando Santos, in this success should not be underplayed. There is a feeling among Greek reporters in Brazil that he would have gone for a more attacking approach earlier but for the knee injury to Kostas Mitroglou, the scorer of three goals in the November play-off win over Romania.

With Mitroglou still struggling with the fitness problems that limited his impact at Fulham, Santos sought a different solution against Ivory Coast with a mobile front three of Dimitris Salpingidis and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos on the flanks and the Celtic striker Samaras in the middle. With the support of attack-minded full-backs Vasilis Torosidis and Jose Cholevas, Greece were a team transformed, a constant threat on the counter-attack.

According to Zagorakis, it was a tactical triumph for Santos, a lugubrious Portuguese who could pass for George Clooney’s ugly big brother. “I worked with him as a player at AEK and some years later when I was president of PAOK,” he says. “He is the boss, he made the choices, he read the opposition and deserves credit as well.”

The question now is whether Greece will spread their wings once more or revert to type against Costa Rica in Recife today. The Central Americans have already spoken of the importance of scoring first, doubtless having noted the excellence of the Greece centre-backs Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas when holding out with 10 men in the goalless draw with Japan.

One journalist close to the Greece camp suggested they may be right: “It depends on the circumstances. If we score first, maybe we will see the bus parked again.”

Costa Rica v Greece is live on BBC1 and ITV1, kick-off 9pm

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?