Greece’s footballers brought some much-needed and unexpected joy to their hard-pressed compatriots back home on Saturday as they reached the Euro 2012 quarterfinals with a stunning 1-0 win over Russia.
Fittingly, it was a goal by one of their heroes from the Euro 2004 triumph captain Giorgos Karagounis that delivered victory to a country which is wilting under the pressures of the eurozone crisis with high unemployment and swingeing cuts.
Russia’s despair was complete as a 72nd-minute goal by Petr Jiracek gave the Czech Republic — who were beaten by the Greeks in the Euro 2004 semifinals — a 1-0 victory over co-hosts Poland to finish top of the table, sending both the Russians and the Poles home.
Polish coach Franciszek Smuda promptly announced that was the end of the road for him, while Russia’s Dutch coach Dick Advocaat had perhaps wisely already said he was leaving for PSV Eindhoven.
Karagounis’s joy at his goal was tempered later in the game by a booking that brought an anguished reaction from the 35-year-old as it means he will miss the quarterfinal.
However, he reflected afterwards how much this victory meant to the wider Greek community.
“When we left Greece, we all said in one voice ‘we will give everything and we will give everything when our compatriots aren’t having the best of times’,” said Karagounis.
“I believe that this tonight puts a smile on their faces.”
For Greece’s Portuguese coach Fernando Santos this victory was inspired by Greece’s rich history as a country.
“What inspires us is the history of Greece,” said Santos, whose 45% pay rise before the tournament raised eyebrows.
“This is the thing that inspires me the most because the Greek people have huge pride for their tradition and history and I think respect from everyone is well deserved.
“Everyone has to respect Greeks because of its history and the principles of democracy, science … everything started from Greece, so it’s very difficult for anyone to give us lessons.”
Smuda was left to rue a bright first-half performance from the Poles that crucially yielded no goals and gave the Czechs, who took time to get into their stride without injured playmaker Tomas Rosicky, hope.
Jiracek duly delivered for his second goal of the tournament leaving Smuda dejected but at the same time he took pride in the way a relatively young side he shaped had performed respectably.
“I can’t say we’ll leave the ground devastated, we’ve played some good matches in friendlies and even here.
“OK, they weren’t perfect or as good as we would have liked but this is football, this is how it works.”
His Czech counterpart Michal Bilek said that even after losing 4-1 to Russia in their opener he and his players had not lost faith.
“We were confident in ourselves, we had already been in difficult situations before, but we have always got out of them playing as a team,” said Bilek, whose side had to come through a play-off to get here.
“The players showed their mental strength, we deserved to go through.”