In the end, as most neutrals suspected, it was the lack of goals that ultimately proved Greece’s World Cup downfall.
After the 3-0 defeat to Colombia to kick off their World Cup in ominous fashion, the fear had been that Greece’s defence would prove equal in its inadequacy to the attack, which always looked like being the side’s overriding weakness in the tournament.
But further games showed Colombia’s attack to be one of the most prolific and inventive in the competition, while Greece’s obdurate defence exhibited something approaching its true colours in a 0-0 draw with South Korea, a game they played the majority of with only 10 men after Kostas Katsouranis’ soft red card.
That left Fernando Santos’ side to face the Ivory Coast in a pivotal Group C encounter, knowing only a win would possibly be enough to put them through to the knockout stages.
To do that they needed goals (well, at least one of them): They just did not know where they were going to come from.
“I don’t care who does it,” their coach, Santos, told reporters in the build-up to the game. “If it is [goalkeeper Orestis] Karnezis that will be fine with me.”
In the end, it was a last-minute penalty, nervelessly converted by striker Georgios Samaras (his ninth goal for his country on his 77th appearance) that allowed them to progress with a 2-1 win.
Five days later, it was by the same method that they would finally exit the competition.
In a World Cup almost universally lauded for its excitement and adventurous attacking play, Greece were the one reliable exception.
“Our tactics have been the same in all the games,” acknowledged Santos before Sunday’s game. “To stay tight in defence to contain the opponents and stay dangerous in attack.”
This refusal to play in a style that might be beyond their limitations was never likely to win them many friends among the neutrals, even if it is tempting to wonder how countries such as England might fare on such stages with a similar lack of self-delusion.
Even against Costa Rica, a team hardly as proficient at either end of the pitch as most of the other last-16 participants, Greece set out to preserve the clean sheet above all else.
Initially, that worked—at least until it did not. The likes of Kostas Manolas, Jose Holebas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos all impressed with their uncompromising defensive work, but when Bryan Ruiz rolled home a tepid strike shortly after half-time, Greece suddenly needed to change their strategy.
In that pursuit they struggled painfully, with the crosses of full-back Holebas time and again proving about the most dangerous attacking outlet for their side. From his deliveries Greece had their chances, although Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas proved the equal of any shot sent his way.
Then, Greece were sent another lifeline, as Los Ticos defender Oscar Duarte received his second yellow card just after the hour-mark and was sent off. Yet, even with the numerical advantage, Greece toiled painfully in search of anything approaching a clear-cut opening.
Fortunately for them, in the final minute their luck finally struck. Santos pushed Sokratis forward in a desperate search for an equaliser, and the Borussia Dortmund man was in the right place at the right time to turn home the rebound after Navas could only parry substitute Theofanis Gekas’ improvised shot straight into his path.
In 90 minutes, Greece had at least scored once. With Costa Rica visibly tiring, it seemed that perhaps another goal in the next 30 minutes would be enough to put them in the quarter-finals.
There was one obvious moment when Greece seemed like they would achieve that aim. After a rare Costa Rica attack, the Europeans had the chance to counter-attack at speed, as they roared into the opposition half with plenty of men in support.
This was it: A five-on-two attack. But a delayed pass created only a half-chance that Navas easily denied, and Greece’s fate was sealed. If they were going to go through, they would need to do it via the penalty shootout.
They started well, scoring their first three to maintain parity with their opponents. But then Navas delivered once more to deny the despairing Gekas and so, when Michael Umana scored to make it a perfect five from five for Los Ticos, Greece were out, victims of their Achilles’ heel.
"I don't think we used the 30 minutes [of extra time] as well as we should,” Santos, who was sent off by the referee before the decisive shootout, told reporters (per Eurosport) afterward. "We started it as if it was the last minute of the game, but there was still 30 left.
"We just needed to pass it around well and go into their half of the field and do things well. We were controlling the game, but then we wanted to try to finalise things individually."
The immediate aftermath of a tournament exit is always acutely painful, but with time and the proper perspective perhaps the Greek players will realise what they really achieved this summer in South America. They escaped a group that featured three evenly matched teams and one standout side, reaching the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time in their history.
“It just did not work out well for us in the end, but this is a team that we should all be proud of,” Katsouranis, the captain who has probably now played his last game for his country, added (per Ekathimerini). “Everyone wanted to make Greek people happy again, but we cannot change the result now.
"We can only wish we get to see Greece have similar runs in the future, too.”
Earlier on Sunday, it was reported, via NewsBomb.gr, that the Greek squad members had turned down their World Cup bonus money, asking instead that the funds be put toward building a training centre to house the national team.
That may be the next step in the evolution of the side, an infrastructure that will help produce and nurture attacking players of a class that matches their many defensive talents.
Maybe then penalty shootouts will not have to be their recourse.
“We did our best but when you lose in the Russian roulette of the shootout, it is just a matter of fortune,” Samaras said. “We fought as a team, we gave it all and lost as a team.”
Samaras may be right. But if you are forced to play Russian roulette enough, at some point you will pay the price.
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