"This is a huge achievement and we feel overjoyed," beamed José Holebas as Greece celebrated their dramatic 2-1 victory against Ivory Coast – and progressing beyond the FIFA World Cup group stage for the first time.
Giorgios Samaras coolly converted a penalty deep into added time to cap a heroic Greek performance in Fortaleza, as they coped with the departure of two key players through injury to get the better of Ivory Coast. They hit the woodwork three times either side of Andreas Samaris's first half-opener, and refused to buckle after Wilfried Bony replied for the African side on 74 minutes. Celebrations after the game were unbridled – tellingly it took two hours for Ferndndo Santos's side to make it from the dressing room to their post-match press conference.
"Everybody knew what they had to do on the pitch," explained Olympiacos FC left-back Holebas, one of the three Greece players to hit the frame of Boubacar Barry's goal, with a rasping 34th-minute shot. "We had a near-perfect game in defence and we built from there, taking control of the encounter and never relinquishing it. We were far from lucky, seeing two of our team-mates leave the pitch injured in the first 23 minutes, but we didn't blink. We managed to prevail and deservedly went through to the knockout stage."
Greece had gone into the game bottom of Group C, without a goal at the final tournament. They finished the section with four points – the same group stage total as they amassed en route to winning UEFA EURO 2004 and making it to the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2012. Following a 3-0 loss to Colombia and a goalless draw against Japan, the Ivory Coast game brought a vintage performance from Santos's side, to delay the coach's departure – and indeed the international retirement of 37-year-old captain Giorgos Karagounis, who has 138 caps.
"There is no secret to our fine form in recent years," Holebas said. "
We rely on our team spirit – we row in the same direction and results come to us. We have a wise, no-nonsense defence, but also showed today that we are strong in attack too, and could have scored more goals."
Greece's reward is a round of 16 meeting with Group D winners Costa Rica on Sunday. "Our main target was making it through the group stage and we did it," beamed Holebas. "From now on we have nothing to lose. As always, we will take it match by match. We have a few days ahead of us to recuperate our strength, relax and then study Costa Rica. They are a tricky rival and have been doing great so far, but we will prepare well."
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