One of the things Giorgos Karagounis will be remembered for long after his retirement is that he played to help Greece forget. While unemployment hit 1.12m and the country went to the polls for a second election in six weeks to vote again on whether to back the harsh austerity measures needed to appease international lenders or risk a chaotic exit from the Eurozone, Karagounis did his best to take everyone’s mind off the troubles back home.
Standing in the tunnel before Greece’s final group game against Russia in Warsaw, he appeared like a modern day Themistocles ahead of the Battle of Marathon, a man set upon achieving the salvation of his nation. After fighting back from a goal down with 10 men to valiantly draw their opening match with co-hosts Poland, a shambolic 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic had left Greece needing to beat the most impressive side in the group and one of the favourites for the competition to have any chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
Few were prepared to give Karagounis and his team a chance. But it’s times like these that reveal a lot about a player’s character. Do they stand and fight or back down? When the countdown to kick off ended and the whistle blew, Karagounis all but unsheathed his sword, let out a war cry and charged. This was no midfield general content to simply marshal those around him. Greece’s captain instead chose to lead from the front.
It was while on one of his raids that he fell upon a mistake by Russia centre-back Sergei Ignashevich and punished him, stretching every sinew to get into the box and then fire a shot under goalkeeper Vyacgeslav Malafeev. As Greece sought to protect their advantage amid an onslaught from Russia, Karagounis raised his head above the parapet and broke through again. Running from deep, he got behind enemy lines only to be brought down in the area by Ignashevich.
A more blatant penalty there could not be. And yet referee Jonas Eriksson instead thought Karagounis had dived. Seeing him produce a yellow card, Greece’s captain couldn’t believe it. Gesturing wildly, he crossed himself not once, not twice but three times and looked on the verge of tears. It had dawned on Karagounis that, if Greece were to see the game out and make the quarter-finals, he’d be suspended, as he had been for the final of Euro 2004. Oh, the injustice of it all.
Replaced by coach Fernando Santos before he took his anger out on anyone, Karagounis spent the remainder of the game in a feverish state of tension, still deeply emotionally involved, kicking every ball even though he was no longer on the pitch. As full-time grew nearer, he paced the sidelines, hoping, wishing for victory. Once liberated by the final whistle, he dashed back on to the field to join his teammates, put his arms around them, jumped up and down with them, and sang with them.
They’d done it. He’d done it. “We did not give up,” Karagounis told Greek television. “We can compare this to our cherished moments in Portugal in 2004. We believed all day that we would not return to Athens [after the group phase]. We kept our promise to all. All Greeks can now celebrate. When we are united no-one can stop us.”
The wider significance of Greece’s qualification for the last eight of Euro 2012 wasn’t lost on Karagounis. It went beyond him. “I had read that I only came here to play three games and tie the 120 caps record. I did not come here for that.”
Karagounis knew what it meant to the people back in Greece. While in some cases the popular perception that footballers are overpaid, underworked and out of touch with reality is true, it couldn’t be more wrong in the case of Karagounis. “There are so many unemployed people around you,” he said, “so many who are in depression or don’t eat. We live here. We see what happens. The sadness is everywhere.”
Unlike many players in other countries effected by the financial crisis, whose clubs have yet to be touched by it, the plight of domestic football in Greece means he can, to an extent, relate to the rest of the population. “There are players who have not been paid for a year,” Karagounis revealed. “I haven’t received anything at Panathinaikos since September.
“Nothing’s stable because of the crisis. Everything’s confusing. Players don’t know if the league will continue, if their clubs will survive, if they’ll find a team…That’s destabilizing. But normally on the pitch we forget everything. Those who keep going to the stadium go there to forget their problems. The crowds are smaller because people have difficulty buying tickets. But I have never been insulted or felt aggression. The people know that I do my job and they know that I am not paid. Why would you attack someone who in the end is a little like you?”
There’s a sense with Karagounis that playing for his country now means more to him than it ever has done before. Greece is in an hour of need. The honor of a people must be defended. A more symbolic opponent than Germany could not have been found for their quarter-final, considering how their Chancellor, Angela Merkel has been the most severe on Greece, imposing painful public sector cuts and insisting that it must “stick to its commitments” and meet the tough budget targets set in their €174bn bailout package. “Bring on Mrs Merkel,” proclaimed Goal News, the Greek sports paper on Sunday morning.
Karagounis will be missing through suspension on Friday night. Yet his presence will be felt throughout. Amid all the talk of debt, he is a footballer who deserves great credit.