Thursday, 17 June 2010

Greece v Nigeria

Greece 2 - 1 Nigeria
Salpingidis 44 Uche 16
Torosidis 71

The most surprising thing about this game was how enjoyable it was. It was faster than the early games right from the start. Nigeria played a few loose passes, but the greater early incompetence was all Greek. First Papastathopoulos (I know, but if I started down that road who knows where I might end up) was booked for a cynical foul on Odemwingie, after a poor pass had given the ball away in the first place.

Then they made a complete hash of the free kick. Uche hit it towards the goal at a medium pace, hard enough to carry to the attackers, but not so hard they'd miss it. They missed it, and Tsorvas in the Greek goal missed it as well. Once it was in the net he managed to pick it up and kick it away quite successfully, but by then it was too late.

It wasn't the end of his humiliation. Three minutes later, a hopeful Nigerian long ball came sailing past, on its way out for a goal kick. He stretched out his arm, touched it but failed to stop it, giving away a corner. Nothing came of it, but the humiliation of such a basic error must have weighed on his mind, especially after the goal.

Even the referee got in on the act, accidentally deflecting a Greek pass to a Nigerian. Of course the very phrase Greek pass makes you think of Thermopylae, but that was the nearest to mythical glory we came for a while.

In the end, their saviour was a Nigerian, Sani Kaita (not to be confused with Kader Keita, of the Ivory Coast). While disputing a throw in with Torosidis, he quite bafflingly kicked him on the thigh. It was a powder puff kick, not enough to leave a mark, but two of the places you just can't kick people are on the thigh and in the World Cup. He was sent off, and walked away with his head buried in his shirt in sheer embarrassment and shame.

It must be awful enough taking the long walk when you're playing Cheltenham in the qualifying round of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, in front of ten old men and a burger van. If you have to do it in front of your team mates, thirty thousand people and the whole watching world, when you've done something profoundly stupid and you know it, and they know it, and you know they know it, then it's hardly surprising if you want to hide your face. Unfortunately, when you're walking off with head in hands and shirt it can be a little hard seeing where you're going, which made the whole thing rather more drawn out than it really needed to be.

These are the moments when football really does remind you of the Greek mythic world. There's just no forgiveness at all. One rash moment, and it doesn't matter if you weep for it like Niobe for her lost children, you're nailed to it forever. When Kaita is an old man, people at parties will still be miming that kick and expecting him to laugh. I've just searched YouTube for Beckham sent off, and there he is, forever young and (so briefly) foolish. 3,390 times.

Kaita's eternal misery was Greece's opportunity. Realising they were now playing ten men, they suddenly woke up. Samaras came on for Papastathopoulos, and Korosidis and Salpingidis both went close. Samaras himself had a half chance when the ball came to him in the box, but it was just behind him, which limited his shot, and Haruna was in the right position to clear.

A minute later, they were level. The ball was laid off to Salpingidis, and his shot was deflected off Haruna, wrong footing the keeper, and in. It was Greece's first goal in the World Cup. Ever.

Greece have only been in the World Cup once before, in the US in 1994. They lost 4-0 to Argentina, 4-0 again to Bulgaria, then 2-0 to - yes - Nigeria. They play Argentina next, so they must have groaned when they saw the group they were in, especially once South Korea had beaten them 2-0.

But now they had a goal in the World Cup. Bars in Salonica and Heraklion must have heard each other cheering.

The second half carried on in the same vein. Just after the break Karagounis had a clear header. He made a dramatic leap, and sent it well over. Just like a dying swan, said Keown, who is definitely growing on me.

Nigeria were still in the game. Uche put in a cross, which turned into a shot halfway in. Tzorbas somewhat redeemed himself by twisting just enough to tip it over. It was about now that Taiwo went off with a groin strain, to be replaced by Echiejile, chief rival for the left back position. How happy he must have been, and how fleeting happiness is (© Homer 1200 BC).

The Greeks now had a free kick near the right corner flag, which Yobo headed straight to Gekas in front of goal. Somehow Enyeama kept it out, and on the rebound Nigeria had a break. Yakubu broke into the box, Tzorbas somehow parried his shot and Obasi mysteriously blasted the rebound wide when the goal was gaping. As we all caught our breath the score was still one all, but no-one could understand how.

And it wasn't one all for long. A Greek corner was cleared to Tziolis, whose shot should have been comfortable for Enyeama. Somehow he spilled it across the goal, and Torosidis just beat his despairing dive and scored. A shame for Enyeama, who had been really good all game, but them's the breaks in football. Sometimes goalkeepers are unlucky.

As was Samaras. In trying to head the ball, he'd accidentally headed Yobo's head instead. When heads collide one usually seems to come off worse than the other, and this time it was the Greek one. At the same time, Echiejile had gone off injured, to be replaced by Afulabi (how soon our happiness turns to ashes in our mouths). Now Nigeria had lost both left backs to injury, and had a defensive midfielder sent off.

They had to take risks, one goal down and down to ten men. So why didn't they? They had two efforts, from Yakubu and Uche, but the most memorable moment came from Samaras, dribbling along the byline and shooting at a more extreme angle than Maicon had scored from for Brazil the other night. Just after that the final whistle went. Greece had their first ever win in the World Cup, and as things stand no-one in the group is definitely through, and no-one is definitely eliminated. Which is just how we like it.

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