SPORTS

Greece beats Nigeria for first World Cup win

Greece earned a historic World Cup victory yesterday, beating 10-man Nigeria in a thrilling encounter in Bloemfontein that kept its chances alive of qualifying for the next round of the competition. The Euro 2004 champion, which had never scored a goal in the finals of soccer’s top competition, knew that a defeat would effectively eliminate it from the World Cup after losing to South Korea 2-0 in its opening game. But the players responded by scoring Greece’s first goals and snatching its first victory in a World Cup. The win means that Greece travels to Polokwane next Tuesday to face Argentina in its final Group B game with a chance of advancing to the last 16. At the same time, Nigeria will face South Korea, which lost 4-1 to Argentina. The South Americans top the group on six points and are virtually through but Greece and South Korea, both on three points and with the same goal difference, and Nigeria, which has lost both games so far, could all qualify in second place. This seemed an unlikely proposition after Greece’s dismal defeat last Saturday and after going behind to Nigeria early in yesterday’s game. The match started with both teams defending deep and trying their luck with long balls. Greece’s slow but efficient passing game pushed the Super Eagles back and forced them to make errors in the midfield. But Nigeria, which beat Greece 2-0 at the World Cup staged in the USA in 1994, broke the deadlock in the 16th minute when Sokratis Papastathopoulos was booked for a foul against Peter Odemwingie. Kalu Uche swung the ball into the box past helpless goalkeeper Alexis Tzorvas, whose error allowed Nigeria to open the scoring. The African side’s joy was short-lived as it was dealt a major blow at the 33-minute mark, when Sani Kaita was sent off by referee Oscar Ruiz after kicking Vassilis Torosidis in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack. Celtic striker Giorgos Samaras was brought on for Papastathopoulos, and Otto Rehhagel’s team went on the offensive. A few minutes later, after some quick team play, Salpigidis broke clear inside the box but his point-blank shot was parried away by goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. The pressure was paying off as the Nigerians went on the defensive, unable to break out of their own half. Greece’s persistence was rewarded in the 44th minute with an equalizer, when Costas Katsouranis controlled the ball and passed it to Salpigidis, who blasted a powerful shot from outside the box. The ball deflected off Lukman Haruna and ended in the top right corner of the goal. Shortly after, the referee blew the whistle to end an action-packed first half. Nigeria’s coach, Lars Lagerback, took off Peter Odemwingie and replaced him with Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi in an attempt to freshen up his team but Greece, eager to score a second, started off the second half in a positive manner. Rehhagel’s men had several shots from outside the box and many crosses into the Nigerian penalty area. Defender Taye Taiwo’s 56th-minute injury added further woes to Lagerback’s team, which was desperately trying to hold off the Greeks. Five minutes later, Greece’s top scorer in the qualifying round, Fanis Gekas, tried a shot from inside the box, but Enyeama parried it and put Nigeria on the counterattack. Everton striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni raced upfield and blasted a shot which was saved by Tzorvas, and Obasi missed the rebound. In the 71st minute, a Giorgos Karagounis corner was cleared to Alexandros Tziolis whose powerful shot was spilled by Enyeama, allowing Torosidis the chance to score the follow-up and seal a historic win for Greece. The former European champions had been severely criticized by the media for their performance in the first game against South Korea and the win was the perfect response from Rehhagel and his team. «It would have been a shame to go home without a point scored,» said the German coach. «We were able to stand up against the early goal and get the game under control.» Looking ahead to the next game, the 71-year-old said: «Argentina is a world-class team. They will clearly be better than us and we have got to try and see how to cope with them.» Having lost all three games in its debut appearance in the World Cup in the USA 16 years ago, Greece’s victory goes some way toward laying those ghosts to rest, and even if the players do not get the result they need against Argentina, they are still likely to receive a warm welcome when they return home. «We badly wanted this, because we’d never even scored a goal in the World Cup before,» Salpigidis said. «I can’t say whether we’ll make it out the group. But I can say that we’ll leave with our heads held high.»