There’s nothing like being in a soccer-mad country when the national side scores a big win in an important tournament like the World Cup, The European Championships or the African Cup of Nations. On Saturday night, Greece shocked Russia, 1-0, to send the Russians home and advance to the quarterfinal round of this year’s Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and I was in Naxos, a Greek island in the Cyclades group to take part in the celebration.
A win like this one would be significant under any circumstances, but given the economic hell that Greece has been through in recent years, the triumph was especially meaningful. One didn’t have to search far and wide to watch the match – you could walk the streets of Naxos town and hardly miss a play, as nearly every business had a TV set up for people to watch the winner moves on match.Bars had big projection screens, but small shops, bakeries, travel agencies and other business also had a variety of much less impressive looking TVs tuned in, some were just ancient little boxes set up on top of plastic chairs, but still attracted small crowds of onlookers.
The mood was festive, but tense in the first half, until Giorgos Karagounis came charging down the right flank and buried a low missile right past the Russian keeper just before the half to give Greece a 1-0 lead. The crowd in the outdoor café I was in exploded, men dropped their worry beads to applaud, people hugged each other, and some jumped on top of tables and danced.
But in the second half, everyone had to sweat it out as the minutes seemed to tick by in an agonizingly slow march, as men all over Greece, nervously fingered their worry beads and chain smoked, praying Greece could hold on.
Greece had seemingly legitimate goals wiped out by the officials in the first two games of this tournament, and when Karagounis was given a yellow card for supposedly diving in the penalty area in the 61st minute, all the men in my vicinity were convinced that the world was once again conspiring against their country, perhaps in payback for the damage Greece has done to world financial markets.
But the plucky, mostly monastically bearded Greek players hung on for dear life and as the final whistle blew, pandemonium ensued, as men sang, chanted and danced on tables. Bar owners gave out free shots of ouzo and the celebratory roars could be heard all over Naxos.
Soon, cars were making laps in the little town, honking their horns as people hung out the windows waving Greek flags and pumping their fists at revelers on the streets. Greece had won and the country finally had something to feel proud of, on the eve of an election the whole world will be watching.
Before this recent trip, I was last in Greece in the summer of 2004, and watched Greece win EURO 2004 from the small town of Nea Marmaris, just south of Thessaloniki in Halkidiki. That party lasted all night and was doubly satisfying for me, because I also won 150€ in an office pool at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, where I worked at the time.
My Macedonian colleagues, who love visiting Greece but have decidedly unpleasant feelings towards the Greeks due to the political standoff between the two countries over its name, had laughed when I picked Greece out of a hat. They were convinced that I’d picked the worst team in the field, but I was the one laughing when they won it all.
Once again, no one believes that Greece can advance in this tournament except for the Greeks themselves. I have no idea if they’ll advance further, but for now, Greeks everywhere are feeling very good about themselves for a change.