“You have made us super proud” and “Greece go worldwide” were just two of the jubilant headlines splashed across the front pages of Greece’s sports papers on Wednesday as the country celebrated qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals.
A 1-1 draw in the second leg of their playoff tie with Romania in Bucharest on Tuesday completed a 4-2 aggregate victory for Fernandos Santos’ team and a third appearance at a World Cup finals.
“Brazil, we are coming!”, declared popular sports tabloid Sportday on Wednesday, adding details of “Greece’s fully deserved place in the 2014 World Cup finals”.
Greece’s usually poker-faced coach Santos was an explosion of emotion after the result.
“I knew that this qualification is important for me, for the players but also for the Greek people, and my heart made me run to the crowd afterwards,” said the 57-year-old Portuguese.
“The biggest prize for me is that I have built a very good relationship with these players; we have a special personal relationship which makes me feel great,” added Santos, who revealed he is also considering extending his contract which expires after the World Cup.
“We will be in Brazil and we have to be happy with that. Then we’ll see. My heart tells me to stay and my mind is now sowing the seed. I have not encountered such love as I have found in Greece.”
The affection comes after a strong campaign – albeit in one of Europe’s weaker sections – where they finished second behind eventual Group G winners Bosnia only on goal difference, with a 3-1 loss to the Bosnians in Zenica their sole defeat.
Solid defence and sharp counter attacks were again key in making the playoffs at the expense of Slovakia, Lativa, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. The Greeks winning eight of their 10 group matches, five of them by 1-0 scorelines.
While still relying on the experienced Giorgos Karagounis, Fanis Gekas and Kostas Katsouranis, Santos has been able to reinvigorate the side by giving younger players a chance.
Olympiakos duo Dimitris Siovas and Kostas Manolas and Borussia Dortmund centre back Sokratis Papastathopoulos have impressed but the darling of the fans remains striker Kostas Mitroglou.
The 25-year-old has come of age with Olympiakos and has formed a key understanding in a front three with Celtic’s Giorgos Samaras and the tireless Dimitris Salpigidis for the national team.
Mitroglou, who was brought to Olympiakos from Borussia Monchengladbach’s youth set-up in 2007, has always shown a flair for goals but as well as an impressive strike rate, he has now shown an increased maturity in leading the attack and bringing other players into the game.
He scored twice in the 3-1 first leg win over Romania and scored the opener in Bucharest on Tuesday, his 22nd goal in all competitions this season.
Despite being somewhat media shy, Mitroglou – who has scored 41 goals in 84 appearances for Olympiakos – is affectionately known as ‘Mitrogoal’ and ‘Pistolero’ by his club’s fanatical fans for his gun-toting goal celebrations, which Greek fans will be hoping to see again at Brazil 2014.