WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Greece surged into the European Championship quarterfinals, defeating Russia 1-0 Saturday on a goal by Giorgos Karagounis just before halftime.
Karagounis, making his team record-tying 120th international appearance, sent a low shot under goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev with the final touch of the first half.
The Greeks, the 2004 European champions, then did what they do best: defend.
“The moments are pure magic for all of us. This is a great night for all Greeks,” Karagounis said. “I cannot describe how I feel. It’s so great.”
Even as the Greeks closed down in front of their net, Karagounis looked to have won a penalty kick when Sergei Ignashevich appeared to bring him down in the area. But Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson instead booked the Greece captain for a dive, meaning he will miss the quarterfinals.
“We are proud that we gave the people back home some joy and a break from their problems – even for a short while,” Greece striker Georgios Samaras said. “We did very well defensively, but the will we had was the main thing. That stopped them from scoring goals.”
Watch the goal that sent Greece to the Euro quarterfinals:
Russia, a semifinalist four years ago, was the overwhelming choice going into the match at the National Stadium, but it was again guilty of squandering chances. The Russians finished the match with 25 shots on goal, while Greece managed only five.
“We should have won by a wide margin tonight, but we didn’t. My compliments to Greece,” Russia coach Dick Advocaat said. “A number of players weren’t sharp enough to score.”
The Russians became one of the tournament favorites with their 4-1 win over the Czech Republic in their opening match, then drew with Poland and finally lost to Greece, snapping a 16-match unbeaten run.
Russian players dejectedly tramped off the field immediately after the final whistle, while Greece’s euphoric players hugged one another and then celebrated with their fans.
“What I’m feeling is overwhelming. I think we did deserve more, but it didn’t happen,” Malafeev said. “To concede that goal just before halftime was an awful feeling.”
Giorgos Tzavelas nearly gave Greece a two-goal cushion when he curled a free kick over the Russian wall in the 70th minute, but saw the ball slam against the top of the goalpost.
Michalis Sifakis then ensured his team would advance when he saved a close-range shot by substitute Pavel Pogrebnyak in second-half injury time.
Russia came close several times in the first half. But even as the team laid siege to the Greek goal it was largely restricted to long-range efforts after the break as it went after the equalizer.
Russia forward Alan Dzagoyev came close in the 84th minute with a glancing header off a cross from Andrei Arshavin, but the ball drifted just wide.
Greece, knowing it needed a win to progress after a draw and a loss, started the match with a defensive setup aimed at stifling Russia’s passing game in the midfield. Russia only needed a draw to reach the quarterfinals.
As the minutes ticked off, Greek fans sang the national anthem and the Russians lit off flares before walking out of the stadium.
Greeks celebrate country’s win over Russia
Thousands poured into Athens’ central Omonia Square on Saturday waving Greek flags, lighting green and red flares and setting off firecrackers amid the din of hundreds of honking cars and renditions of the national anthem in a spontaneous outpouring of patriotic fervor.
Clouds of acrid smoke wafted through the square as motorcyclists spun their tires. Shirtless revelers danced in the street, halting traffic, but motorists caught up in the celebratory atmosphere weren’t all that bothered, blasting their horns in approval.
On the eve of pivotal elections that could decide their economic fate, the win gave ordinary Greeks a chance to exhibit a little in-your-face swagger, thumb their nose at Europe and push back at being painted as the continent’s deadbeats.
The victory was all that much sweeter because it came in true underdog style, bringing back memories of Greece’s improbable run eight years ago, when they won the European championship.
“The result is a message to politicians, to everyone that Greece won’t die and never bows to anyone,” said Chris Mbogosian, 62.
“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 multibillion-euro bailout — and being their most outspoken critic — in a quarterfinal showdown with political connotations.
“It’s a result that shows our country is strong,” said Stavros Helmis, 26. “Sport may not be the most serious thing, but it lifts our spirits.”
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.