Greece doesn’t score often at the World Cup, but its goals certainly come at the right time.
Greece doubled its total scoring tally at World Cup tournaments by netting twice against the Ivory Coast on Tuesday — the second coming through an injury-time penalty that secured a 2-1 victory and a spot in the knockout rounds.
Having gone scoreless through its first two games in Brazil — a loss and a draw — the Greeks are now improbably into the round of 16 for the first time in their history — when European powers like Spain, Italy and England are going home.
Ivory Coast only needed a draw to advance at Greece’s expense and was a couple of minutes away from celebrating when Georgios Samaras was adjudged to have been tripped in the area by substitute Giovanni Sio. Samaras calmly slotted in the spot kick for a last-gasp win that eliminated the Africans.
“This means so much to me, to us … Tonight we had energy,” Samaras said, dedicating the win to Greeks suffering through financial crisis. “We really hope we can make the people happy back home. We are a team. A team — that’s it.”
Celebrations erupted in Greece, where the game ended well after midnight. Thousands of fans poured into the streets to celebrate in Athens, and the country’s second-largest city Thessaloniki.
The players in Fortaleza danced around in a circle and sang with small groups of travelling fans at Arena Castelao who had been drowned out all night by the pro-African Brazilian crowd.
Greece only scored twice in its previous two World Cup tournaments and lost its opening game in Brazil to eventual Group C winner Colombia 3-0 before holding Japan 0-0.
On Tuesday, it took the lead just before halftime through substitute Andreas Samaris, who punished Ivorian Ismael Tiote for a careless pass backward.
Substitute Wilfried Bony equalized for Ivory Coast in the 74th, beating goalkeeper Pangiotis Glykos from close range after being set up by Gervinho.
That goal looked like it would put the Africans through until the late drama. Samaras met a cross in the area and tried to shoot with his left leg, which got caught against the leg of Sio. Samaras’ foot then hit the ground and he fell to the turf, drawing a penalty.
With his country’s hopes on the line, Samaras sent his spot kick past goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who guessed the right way but couldn’t keep the ball out.
“We came here to advance from the group stage. We’ve never done it before, and we did tonight in a great way,” said Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis, a veteran of the team that won the European Championship in 2004. “The goal should have come earlier. So God helped us in the end and we all thank him. We prevailed against the odds. We had passion and we had fight.”
Veteran striker Didier Drogba started for Ivory Coast along with Yaya and Kolo Toure despite the recent death of their brother Ibrahim. The Ivorians wore black armbands as a sign of mourning.
“The Ivory Coast is a great football nation. And this was a cruel game, a cruel game,” Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said. “After so much hard work and so much sacrifice, all of us and everyone in the Ivory Coast is very sad.”
Greece, which had failed to score in the previous two Group C matches, finished second in Group C with four points, behind winner Colombia with nine. Ivory Coast had three and Japan one.
On Tuesday, the Greeks missed a handful of scoring chances against Ivory Coast, hitting the crossbar twice with shots from distance. The Greeks were also forced to make two early substitutions after valuable midfielder Pangiotis Kone and goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis were injured in the first half.
“We found balance tonight. We are not the worst team when we lose or the best when we win. To everyone in Greece I say: Go out into the street and celebrate,” Greece coach Fernando Santos said. “The moment of the penalty was very tense. I knew Georgios would get it in. … I’ve already had a couple of cigarettes and I’m going to have a few more. I think this is a night for three of four beers.” [AP]