And then there were four. Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany into the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and who could really begrudge any of them a place? They’ve been the best teams at the tournament and are fully deserving of their berths. Greece, predictably, were dispatched by a slick German outfit and joined Czech Republic on their way out, followed by France and England.
Unlike our last two exits from major tournaments, there must be a real sense of pride, optimism and satisfaction in every Greek fan and citizen. Over the last couple of weeks, football seemed to transcend social boundaries and really touch people who so desperately needed a tonic for their ills. Its finest moment was the remarkable 1-0 win over Russia, a mini-miracle that lifted spirits temporarily in a country afflicted by financial crisis.
This was a tournament where, crucially, Greece walked away with their reputation enhanced. It’s a stark contrast to the vitriol directed at the national team when it went for archaic catenaccio at Euro 2008, picking up no points and giving eager critics plenty of ammunition. Negative was the operative word back then.
Spirit is what seems to define this team in the eyes of neutrals now.
Whilst it is not a positive that Greece’s first-half performances were consistently poor, the second-half fight-backs were remarkable and inspiring. Even against Germany, a team who were of a different pedigree and class, there was for a fleeting moment the suggestion of a miracle. Fernando Santos’ side couldn’t have spent more than few cumulative minutes in Die Mannschaft’s half.
But somehow they managed to equalise, to rally, to show endeavour in the face of far superior opposition and what seemed certain defeat. For a few minutes, Georgios Samaras’ goal allowed us to dream and gave us the glorious image of an ashen-faced Angela Merkel alongside a delirious Greek contingent.
Deservedly sent home and thoroughly outplayed? Sure. But this was a performance and a campaign to be utterly proud of. Four goals shipped in a quarter-final is nothing to envy but taking the fight to a German team that could well knock a great Spanish side off their perch certainly is. Scoring two goals against them is certainly an achievement not to be dismissed.
Seeing this Greek side described as “sorry” in a headline for the ESPN match report doesn’t rankle as much as it could. After all, we have been given plenty of moments over which the replay buttons on YouTube videos will be exhausted in years to come. To watch nations of the ilk of England and France imitate the style that brought Greece their stunning success in Portugal eight years ago only to then see certain members of their press criticise the approach Santos’ men took against Germany is thick with irony. Quite frankly I pay no attention to it.
To see this Greece team also take a more cavalier approach was refreshing. They can hardly be accused of being ultra-defensive or relying on set-pieces, instead exhibiting a willingness to commit bodies forward, even when faced with a number of hurdles. From red cards and suspensions, to disallowed goals and injuries, the football Gods have conspired against this team time and time again.
Diego Maradona quipped before the Germany match that if 300 Spartans could defend Thermopylae then 11 Greeks could hold out against Joachim Low’s side. Incorrect though he was, such a comparison fits well with this particular squad of players, who permanently had their backs to the wall but refused to give in.
The Moment: Georgios Samaras’ goal against Germany. We won the battle and lost the war but the mix of disbelief and ecstasy that greeted the equaliser will linger long in my memory.
The Goal: As above. Of all of the goals Greece scored it was the classiest, most well-constructed. From showing desire to win the ball off a team that rarely loses it to Giorgos Fotakis’ delightful release of Dimitris Salpingidis down the line to his world-class assist and the determination of Samaras to apply the finish, this was a goal that had everything and encapsulated Greece’s outstanding campaign.
The Player: Dimitris Salpingidis. Consistently this team’s biggest threat and deserving of a big contract this summer, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him plying his trade in England when the season kicks off again. He scored two goals, including the crucial equaliser against Poland. He also won a penalty in that game and helped change the mentality of this squad for the remainder of the tournament. Oozed class. Special mentions to Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Samaras.
The Manager: Santos passed his first true international test with flying colours. He wasn’t perfect in his tactical approach but was outstanding in his willingness to constantly correct himself and turn games around at half-time. Not afraid to give young players a chance and encouraged flowing, attacking football relative to the resources at his disposal.
The Departed: Kostas Chalkias and Nikos Lyberopoulos have ended their association with the national team. They emotionally bade farewell to the team after the Germany game, where Santos apparently said nothing. Lyberopoulos in particular is a legend who has made crucial contributions throughout his international career. He was given 20 minutes against the Germans in a nice gesture by his manager.
The Future: Bright. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Michalis Sifakis, Vasilis Torosidis, Georgios Samaras, Kostas Fortounis and Sotiris Ninis will lead their country to Brazil. Other young talents could join them over the next few months under a manager who has proved himself astute and progressive.
So this will likely be my last blog entry for these championships and I must say it has been a pleasure. A big thanks to anyone who stumbled across this page. I sincerely hope you were entertained or informed in some way. Feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com, at my Twitter page @Cparaskevas or at Football Hellas (www.footballhellas.com).
Bring on Brazil!