Greek hardship spurred victory at Euro 2012

With smiles on their football-loving faces, Greeks will cast

ballots Sunday in an election that could decide the crisis-hit

country’s fate in Europe.

At the European Championship, their fate could be a quarterfinal

match against Germany.

The Greeks beat heavily favored Russia 1-0 Saturday, defying the

odds – and, some say, the Gods – to cap a football revival in the

country that surprisingly won the Euro 2004 title.

It was an ideal distraction.

In their fifth year of recession, many Greeks hold Germany – the

EU’s leading economy – responsible for imposing harsh terms in

return for the country’s bailout. The terms have caused a rapid

rise in poverty, with an average of 900 people losing their job per

day.

Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis, who scored the lone goal

against Russia just before the halftime whistle, said his country’s

troubles had acted as the ultimate motivator.

”When we left Greece, we all said really give it everything,”

Karagounis said. ”We would have anyway, but the (hardship) made us

fight more.”

If Germany wins Group B on Sunday, it will set up a quarterfinal

match between the recession-hammered Greeks and their lead bailout

creditor.

”We put a smile on Greeks’ faces tonight. It’s not just that we

went through, but it’s the way we did it,” said the 35-year-old

Karagounis, who will miss the next match through suspension. ”I

can’t describe the feelings I have tonight. I can compare this win

to what we did in 2004.”

As the final whistle was blown, players hugged Karagounis and

danced in a circle as 1,500 traveling fans erupted in celebration.

Many of them came from Greek immigrant communities around Europe,

including Germany. Others managed to make the trip from Greece, but

they were far outnumbered by Russians on Saturday at the National

Stadium.

Greece struggled in its first two matches at Euro 2012, rallying

to draw with co-host Poland 1-1 and losing 2-1 to the Czech

Republic – conceding early goals, losing key players, and appearing

to lose concentration for long spells of those games.

On Saturday, everything clicked.

Karagounis equaled an all-time appearance record of 120 matches,

and players followed coach Fernando Santos’ mantra: Take every

challenge, defend hard, deny your opponents the chance to deploy,

and victory will come.

”We’ve worked so hard for this. It’s fantastic. It didn’t go

well in the last two games, but tonight everything went well,”

said defender Giorgos Tzavellas, who played his first match at the

tournament on Saturday, filling a weak spot on Greece’s left.

Santos, who came to the tournament with just one loss in 21

matches, said his players were ”tremendous.”

”They showed great tenacity and character,” the Portuguese

coach said. ”I had told them that they have my full trust. I told

them that now is when character matters, and their response was

awesome.”

In Athens, thousands flocked to the city center, waving Greek

flags, lighting flares and setting off firecrackers amid the din of

hundreds of honking cars.

At the same time, jokes spread across the Internet and mobile

phone messages poking jibes at German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

One message reads: ”Merkel get ready, it’s your turn now.”

Associated Press writer Menelaos Hadjicostis in Athens

contributed to this report.