Greece positive despite elimination
When Sokratis Papastathopoulos gets married July 5 at Cape Sounio's St. Constantine and Helen Church, you wonder whether his mind will stray for a moment at the altar.
The centre-back, who seemed to have put Greece on the cusp of the quarterfinals of the World Cup with his injury-time equalizer against Costa Rica, was happy to postpone his wedding day in the event of victory. Perhaps the celebrations will have a bittersweet feeling.
Penalties, after all, are arguably the worst way to lose a football match, and this defeat will particularly hurt, given the chances Greece had to win the game in extra time. With Costa Rica stopper Keylor Navas doing his best impersonation of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, however, Costa Rica were always going to be slight favourites in a shootout.
And yet, for large periods of normal time -- even after Costa Rica were reduced to 10 men -- Greece convinced in pursuit of their equalizer. In that respect, Navas' slight error that allowed Papastathopoulos to poke home from a rebound was a stroke of luck for the Mediterranean side.
Yet credit must not be taken away from Greece. Despite its creative limitations, this is a team that refused to give up throughout the tournament. That quality almost allowed it to snatch the most unlikely of victories. Unfortunately, Navas delivered another star performance and kept Fernando Santos' side at bay.
Costa Rica themselves are so reminiscent of that famous Greek side of 2004 in their reliance on supreme organization and a clinical touch in front of goal. Indeed, their constant threat from set pieces is another similarity with the team that lifted the Henri Delaunay Trophy a decade ago.
In essence, Greece have been given a dose of their own medicine by the tiny nation from Central America, who ceded possession and territory over the course of this match. There can be no complaints about their methods, for the pot does not have the luxury of calling the kettle black.
Over the past decade the Greeks have won countless qualifiers and games at major tournaments as a result of the sort of qualities exhibited by Costa Rica in Recife. That Costa Rica largely relied on the exploits of their goalkeeper -- and no small amount of luck -- is irrelevant. That is the nature of football.
So congratulations to Jorge Luis Pinto, his players and Costa Rica for a deserved victory and best wishes for the remainder of the campaign.
For Greece, this is a sobering experience. Papastathopoulos' goal is a testament to the mental fortitude and team spirit that have made this side so likeable, but it is hard to argue that their exit at this stage of the tournament is not a fair reflection of them. They, after all, required a smash and grab -- but deserved -- win against the Ivory Coast to qualify from their group.
Beyond that display, a disastrous showing against Colombia and only a slight improvement against Japan highlighted a number of shortcomings within the squad. Credit to Santos and his players, however, for largely overcoming those deficiencies with a mix of determination, discipline and tactical nous.
They also added their own unique side story to what has been a tremendous World Cup.
And yet ...
There is the sense that this was a missed opportunity. A quarterfinal against a Dutch side with its own weaknesses would not have been an insurmountable task. Given Greece's famous run in Portugal, a victory over Costa Rica might just have given this squad of players the belief to do something very special.
The win was within Greece's grasp, but it slipped so agonizingly out of it.
A time will come for reflection on potential errors Santos might have made during this game, but to "blame" any member of this Greek squad for a heartbreaking defeat would be unjust; these two teams left absolutely everything out on the pitch, and ultimately, there needed to be a loser. On this occasion, it was Greece.
But with a number of Greek players impressing at this tournament -- among them Kostas Manolas, Papastathopoulos and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos -- there is a platform for Santos' successor to build on in the future. It is worth remembering also that prior to this campaign, Greece had won just one World Cup game in six attempts. Perspective is important.
So as Greece bids this magical tournament farewell, it does so in the knowledge that it exceeded expectations and hopefully won the respect of neutrals with its never-say-die attitude.
In four years' time, they will endeavor to do it all again.