In the build-up to Greece’s Euro 2012 campaign I have written repeatedly about the obduracy of this current squad and the unapologetic nature of a defensive approach that served them so well during qualifying.
The qualities that make them one of the continent’s most difficult teams to break down were non-existent in the opening 45 minutes in Warsaw and, combined with two awful decisions from Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo and an adrenaline rush that saw Poland race out of the blocks, it resulted in yours truly directing carefully chosen expletives in a variety of languages towards the nearest television screen.
There’s something almost poetic about the way a fan can cohesively string together prose at such moments of pure frustration and anger. Whether it was at Carballo for his ludicrous sending off of Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Georgios Samaras for, well, being Georgios Samaras, there would have been no expense spared in the swearing department from Greek fans all over the world.
This tournament could so easily have been over after a mere half-hour had it not been for the wastefulness of a pulsating Polish side. Upon reflection, Carballo’s mistake probably helped Greece find a way back into the game, forcing a structural change from Santos that suited his players far more and inspiring a backs-to-the-wall mentality that they really should have adopted from the opening whistle.
It took an unfair sending-off and a failed penalty award to do it but the Greek players finally awoke from their slumber and realised that they were at a European Championship; there really is nothing like the sight of a passionate Greek who has just been insulted or dealt a hand of severe injustice in any walk of life. Perhaps it is in our DNA that we produce our best at times of adversity, only really push ourselves when being pushed. Whatever the explanation, this was a performance to be proud of.
From a tactical standpoint, Fernando Santos emerges with huge credit (and I’ll not indulge in clever IMF-related puns in this article, despite the ease with which I could do it) for his changes at half-time: persisting with Kostas Katsouranis at centre-back, bringing on Dimitris Salpingidis and strengthening the spearhead of his attack were key to turning this game around. In that respect he showed a side to his management that was sorely lacking during Otto Rehhagel’s reign, the German far less likely to make such key changes to personnel and shape.
The Greek FA’s recent decision to award Santos a handsome pay-rise and contract extension was not a popular decision among citizens back home given the country’s state of economic turmoil, yet he earned a considerable chunk of it by passing his first major test as a national team manager.
Admittedly his hand was somewhat forced by the exits of the aforementioned Sokratis and Avraam Papadopoulos through injury but the half-time team-talk and substitutions were all spot on. Trusting in 20-year-old Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his fellow German-based player Kostas Fortounis paid dividends, the two turning in outstanding performances and surely pressing for a starting spot against Czech Republic.
Give me the opportunity to list Kostas Katsouranis’ shortcomings for the national team and I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to produce a thesis on the subject but he was immense at the heart of the Greek defence, bringing a sense of calm and an organisational quality that was missing in the first-half. He simply must play in that position alongside Kyriakos against the Czechs.
However, I’ll leave the tactical discussions for my next entry and instead focus on the fact that Greece are still alive and kicking after their first game. It may not seem like much to have stolen a point off a Polish side who in the end were exposed as being ordinary but, when you consider our last two appearances at major tournaments began with disastrous defeats, this is a huge point, even despite Karagounis’ penalty miss.
Defensive shape and organization were conspicuous in their absence from large parts of this performance but they were replaced by other qualities: spirit, togetherness and determination. Euro 2004 may have essentially been a tactical victory but formation and systems would have meant nothing without the grit and application of the individuals. In that respect, this was a performance reminiscent of those that came eight years ago and one that bodes well for the immediate future.
If there was one endearing image from this game for Greeks, it perhaps was the sight of Santos’ players acknowledging their fans at the end of the game, the traveling party in celebratory mood despite only gaining a point. In difficult circumstances both on the pitch and off the pitch for players, fans and citizens of Greece alike, this was a moment to celebrate and savor. May there be more to come in the coming weeks.