By Andrew Thomas
AND so Greece depart: ineffective, unlamented, disappointing, and …
Er … oh. What? Really? Oh wow.
Are you sure?
Okay then. Greece haven’t gone out, despite being by common consensus somewhere between bobbins and abject. Entertainingly, Fulvio Collovati, of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, is in some trouble after being caught off-mic referring to the Greeks as a “squadra di merda”, which more or less translates itself. But then common consensus, like the common cold, is a soggy and irritating business that bungs up the head and gets right up your nose. Let’s work out why Greece deserved to go through, if only to attempt to soften the blow of having to watch them play again.
First, we need to talk about luck; specifically bad luck. And not just the normal array of hit posts, jammy deflections, and inopportune stumbles that fuel the everyday rueful mutterings of the aggrieved football fan. In the first match, against Poland, Greece had a man sent off who definitely shouldn’t have been; in the second, against the Czech Republic, they had a goal disallowed that probably should have stood. Losing a goal, and losing a man, are roughly the two worst things that can happen to a team where goals are rare and where space is crucial, and in a three-game group, such malign fortunes could and possibly should have been the Greeks’ undoing.
Yet through they went. I’m not saying that Greece would definitely have won without those mistakes; I don’t need to, since they’re not out. Nor am I trying to embark on a tirade against refereeing standards in general; that would be some heavy dull to start shovelling in the midst of a tournament like this. But the widespread understanding that ‘Greece have been rubbish’ deserves a little more nuance: ‘Greece have been rubbish’ is only part of the cocktail, along with ‘Greece have been unlucky’, and also ‘Greece have been ugly’.
That ugliness is the key. Greece don’t look like a bad football team by accident but by design. Two forwards chosen for their ability to forage and bustle and knock into people; seven defenders/midfielders to clog and harass and stymie; and the mascot, Samaras, an unwatered spider-plant of a footballer. It’s not pleasing on the eye, but it functions effectively in those moments that they’re not being rubbish or unlucky; indeed, it works well enough that they were able to beat the strongest team in the group despite another major refereeing error, after Giorgios Karagounis was tripped in the area by Russia’s Sergei Ignashevich, only to receive a yellow card for simulation.
If Greece are to convince anybody that they’re not just an inexplicably effective pint of hot dreck, that moment, that penalty-that-never-was, is crucial. Because while their football isn’t going to gladden the heart, stimulate the cerebrum, or twitch the loins, Greece, and in particular their mad-eyed captain, are undoubtedly the tournament leaders in straightforward shit-giving.
There is, I think, a widespread British tendency to sneer at public displays of emotion. In part, this comes from simply belonging to a people conditioned from birth by dishwater skies to apologise to anybody that treads on their toe, and to view the gesticulations of those hot-blooded Mediterranean types with suspicion, if not outright contempt. But it also comes from the (largely valid) sense that footballers, when professing their undying commitment to this or that cause, really care about precisely two things, their ego, and their wallet. And finally, there is a tendency to deride and disdain anybody proffering intangibles like ‘passion’ and ‘desire’ as an explanation for sporting ability or achievement, as though football was a game entirely of the head, and not of the heart and soul. (And feet. Obviously. Pedant.)
But just look at Karagounis after that penalty claim was rejected. He’s not just upset, or angry; he genuinely looks as though the world is crashing in on him. He crosses himself, frantically, again and again, eyes wheeling to the heavens, pleading with the Divine for forgiveness, or mercy, or something else incredibly important and necessary. This sense that it really, really matters is a dying (or maybe dead) one in club football, but at international level, it still turns up from time to time.
That’s Karagounis. That’s Greece. Their football may be ugly, and their fortune may be skewed, and their defending may be occasionally utterly catastrophic, but by whatever’s lurking in the skies above, they certainly give one. Passion, desire, courage, and religious fervour may not be enough to win you a football game, but it certainly makes Greece a damn sight more fun to watch than they have any right to be.