Hero Samaras deserves respect
"I completely lost my adolescence. At 16, I learned to be a man and a professional."
Georgios Samaras' life has been built on sacrifice. At a tender age the Heraklion-born teenager was off to Netherlands to begin his professional football career, and in subsequent interviews, he has often reflected on the fact that he essentially gave up his social life in order to succeed at Heerenveen. Celtic, in that respect, was the perfect destination for a player who suffered a difficult rise to fame and fall from grace at Manchester City. In Greece, there were high hopes that the striker would become the national team's next superstar. The departure from England -- after a promising beginning -- was a disappointing setback.
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When speaking about Glasgow, Scotland, Samaras has described the city as providing his ideal lifestyle: one in which he is able to stay out of the spotlight off the pitch. His calm demeanour and low-key personal life are perhaps products of an adolescence that was focused and structured. By all accounts Samaras is a model professional and decent guy. In the aftermath of Greece's 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast -- in which the 29-year-old scored the winning penalty in injury time -- a video circulated showing celebrations on the Greek team bus. Samaras, typically, offered quiet responses to the camera and seemed incredibly relaxed while his teammates partied.
That demeanour is often mirrored on the pitch, where Samaras can cut an ambling figure, by virtue of his physical build and languid style. In the past this has been misinterpreted as a lack of effort by the player's critics, particularly during his time at Manchester City. Within Greece, criticisms of Samaras have never been as frequent or vitriolic as in the United Kingdom. This is largely because whenever he has struggled for the national team, he has always bounced back with important contributions. The Greek press also tend to be supportive of the country's foreign-based stars.
In 2009, a crucial penalty in a World Cup qualifier against Israel -- a first goal for Greece in almost three years -- endeared him to fans and commentators alike. When he grabbed the ball and placed it on the spot, manager Otto Rehhagel was apoplectic because Samaras was not the team's chosen taker. He coolly slotted the ball home. Cue pandemonium and headlines.
That is not to say that Samaras has been immune from criticism in Greece. A poor goal-scoring record for the national team and his perceived failure to live up to the hype of his early career are two sticking points. Without doubt, there has always been frustration that Samaras' performances against the likes of Ukraine (2010 World Cup qualifier), Croatia (Euro 2012 qualifier), Russia and Germany (both Euro 2012) have not been consistently replicated.
In the wake of his history-making penalty to seal Greece's passage to the round of 16, however, he has been christened as the undisputed darling of Greek football. He has been described as a leader, legend and hero, while his attempt to bring young Celtic fan Jay Beatty to Brazil has only enhanced his standing among the local press (and attracted as much attention as his exploits against the Ivory Coast).
Even still, there remains an underappreciation of a player who has been far more consistent for Greece than acknowledged. A lack of goals within a team that almost always -- particularly under Rehhagel -- plays reactive football is unsurprising and arguably no fault of the player himself.
Indeed, Samaras is often deployed out of position for the national team, forced to adopt a bizarre target-man role on the left wing. His ability to occupy almost any position in attack has arguably hurt his game, but he has produced big performances for Greece in big games. It is typical of the player's career that almost all of the focus after the Ivory Coast game from the Greek press was on his penalty and a preoccupation with his thoughts at the time he struck the ball.
"I don't remember anything," Samaras said of the goal in his understated manner. "It's a blackout. I was totally focused on putting the ball in the net."
But the truth of the matter is that Samaras throughout the game was outstanding, setting up Greece's first goal and offering a constant outlet for a team put under concerted pressure during the second half.
And his importance during this campaign has been heightened by the non-performances of Kostas Mitroglou. The Fulham striker entered this tournament as the closest thing Greece had to a "star name," but his fitness and form have been a bizarre mystery. Cameo performances have done little to suggest he'll find his feet in Brazil.
In the meantime, the long-haired, gangly and aesthetically awkward figure that is Samaras continues to make key contributions for his country. Inspired to take up football as a young boy while watching his father, Ioannis -- who also played for Greece -- run around for OFI Crete, the sacrifices he made in his formative years have now been completely vindicated.
He may not be a universally popular player, but back home in Greece, he is now a bona fide hero.