An earthquake measuring four on the Richter scale hit the west of Greece yesterday morning but that was nothing compared with the reverberations felt around the country after their footballers’ last-gasp World Cup triumph the night before.
There were celebrations in Athens’ Omonia Square and a message of congratulations from the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, after his namesake, the Celtic striker Georgios, had given the country at the epicentre of Europe’s financial crisis something to celebrate.
“We really hope we can make the people happy back home,” said Samaras, having converted the injury-time penalty against Ivory Coast that put Greece into the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time.
In some ways, this Greek success recalls their unanticipated triumph at Euro 2004, when Otto Rehhagel’s side ended up champions with superb defending, deadly set pieces and a definite dalliance with Lady Luck.
Fernando Santos’s side had their backs to the wall in Fortaleza, where they began their final group game bottom. Beaten 3-0 by Colombia in their first match, they had looked set for further disappointment against Japan after losing Kostas Mitroglou to injury and captain Kostas Katsouranis to a red card before half-time only to earn a goalless draw.
There was more of the same on Tuesday when they lost two more players – midfield mastermind Panagiotis Kone and goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis – inside 23 minutes yet went on to produce arguably their best display in a decade.
The grizzled 37-year-old midfielder Georgios Karagounis – one of two survivors of Euro 2004 – summed up this defiance as he rolled back the years with a typically dynamic display. “We were the better team throughout the 90 minutes and when you win right at the end, it makes it ever sweeter,” said a player released by Fulham in May. “We got what we deserved and we have made all Greeks proud.” He added somewhat lyrically that “the heart of the Greeks helps us play against the odds”.
In 2004, Greece were kings of the 1-0 win but against Didier Drogba and Co what really caught the eye was their attacking play. Greece had only scored in one of eight previous World Cup games but they counter-attacked brilliantly against Ivory Coast. Indeed, Jose Cholevas came close to scoring one of the goals of the tournament on an electric breakaway that ended with him smashing a shot against the crossbar.
It was a tactical triumph for Santos. “We thought it would be a good idea to play with three highly mobile strikers up front,” he explained. Samaras had not scored for Greece for two years but he shone in a deep, false nine role and his conversion of the climactic penalty was ice-cool.
Next they face Costa Rica in Recife on Sunday but Euro 2004 veteran Stelios Giannakopoulos, at home in Athens, is not looking ahead. “Already it is a big achievement for Greece to qualify. Whatever happens they are going to enjoy themselves and whatever happens we’ll take it.”
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