Warsaw. With smiles on their football-loving faces, Greeks cast ballots on 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 on Saturday, defying the odds — and, some say, the gods — to cap a football revival in the country that surprisingly won the Euro 2004 title.
Russia’s despair was complete as a 72nd-minute goal by Petr Jiracek gave the Czech Republic a 1-0 victory over co-hosts Poland to finish top of the table, sending out both the Russians and the Poles.
It was an ideal distraction for the Greeks.
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, 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.
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.
“Greeks have heart and they show it when things get tough, we pull together in times of crisis,” said 29-year-old Vasilis Papaspyliotopoulos, standing amid the crowd with the Greek flag draped across his shoulders.
Revelers broke into chants of “bring on the Germans,” relishing the prospect of meeting the country footing most of the bill for their multi-billion euro bailout — and being their most outspoken critic — in a quarterfinal showdown with political connotations.
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.”