ON THE football pitch, at least, Greece proved they could still rub shoulders with the continent’s big hitters at Euro 2012.
While the politicians squabble over the country’s dire financial situation and ordinary Greeks struggle to cope with the harsh austerity measures, their footballers will return home full of pride after reaching the last eight.
There was to be no repeat of their incredible triumph in 2004 when they won the championship in Portugal, but in emerging from a group which comprised Russia, co-hosts Poland and the Czech Republic, Fernando Santos’s team gave the country some much-needed cheer.
Friday’s 4-2 defeat by Germany was no disgrace either, even if they were outclassed by a superb side who may well go on to win the tournament.
“We enjoyed every moment and the fact that we had to battle every day,” said forward Dimitris Salpingidis, who set up an unlikely equaliser for Giorgos Samaras just after half-time and converted a late consolation penalty.
“We really loved it and we hope that our fans enjoyed it as well while they were watching our efforts.
“We have raised standards over the past ten years. Our next goal is to reach the World Cup finals in Brazil.”
That process begins this year and, with qualifying ties against the likes of Lithuania, Bosnia and Slovakia, Greece will be hopeful of joining the party in 2014.
Samaras believes that Greece should take a lot of heart from their performances at the European Championships, the highlight of which was a 1-0 victory over a much-fancied Russia side to qualify for the quarter-finals, having begun the match bottom of their group after a draw with Poland and a defeat by the Czechs.
“The Greek team have plenty of young players, including myself, as I am only 27,” the Celtic striker said. “We still have a future in front of us. I am sure many other young players will join the team.
“A new campaign looking to Brazil starts in September, and I believe that everyone in this team, as well as all Greeks, are hoping we will take part in those finals.”
While Greece proved hard to beat, Santos agreed there was room for improvement as an offensive unit.
They will also have to prepare for a time when they have to replace skipper Giorgos Karagounis.
The 35-year-old was unluckily suspended for the Germany game, and Greece missed his ability to keep possession.
However, they will return home with their pride intact, according to defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
“We put our soul into it,” he said. “There is definitely a future for this team. The only thing we have to do is make a step forward each time we play in tournaments like this.
“We managed to be one of the eight best teams in Europe. That’s a great achievement if you consider the Netherlands didn’t even qualify for the last eight.”
The reaction back home in Athens was positive. “We’re Proud of You,” Greek daily SportDay wrote in its banner headline yesterday, while GoalNews added: “We owe you, and we love you.”
City residents watched the Germany match at outdoor cafes in the middle of a heat wave, cheering and consoling each other, on a night when the country could try to forget about its economic crisis.