Finally the tournament has come to life. In the twenty four hours before this game we’ve had some fine football played by Switzerland, Uruguay and Argentina, some drama and our first proper upset in the first of these games. We’ve even had some controversy going on off-the-field too. If we needed a reminder that behind this celebration of world football lies a grubby marketing exercise then there’s the faintly scandalous decision to prosecute two of the women involved in Monday’s ambush marketing stunt (which seemed, in any case, not to break any of FIFA’s strict rules) at the Holland v Denmark game. If you feel the need to tie your World Cup into a deal for an exclusive “official beer”, let alone one that tastes like muck, then you deserve to have your tournament ambush marketed. I applaud it and encourage it, even if I don’t applaud or encourage media pundits cashing in on the exercise. And while we’re about blaming women for the sins of men, the South African authorities aren’t the only ones at it, Iker Casillas’s girlfriend and sports reporter Sara Carbonero apparently being blamed in some quarters back in Spain for distracting him by her mere presence at the game yesterday.
Amidst all this, and the ongoing debates about the ball and the vuvuzuelas and the antics of Maradona in his press conferences, this group B clash between two first game losers could easily have slipped under the radar. It always looked like it was going to be one for the diehards: not only had they lost their opening games but looked poor in the process. On the positive side, there was no point in either team displaying the same caution that had characterised so many of the opening set of fixtures. For Greece in particular, with Argentina still to come, only a win here would do.
In the event, after a slow start, it turned into a very lively match, though it only came fully to life after the game’s principal flashpoint on 33 minutes when Nigerian midfielder Sani Kaita had a rush of blood and kicked out at Vasilis Torosidis following a totally innocuous scuffle over a throw-in. It was a shameless bit of play-acting from Torosidis, who had taken only a minor knock on the thigh, but Kaita had to go and the momentum of the game turned almost immediately.
By that stage the Nigerians were 1-0 up. It had been a cagey start all round but in the 16th minute they won a free-kick, out on the left. Kalu Uche floated a cross into the danger area, Odemwingie failed to get his head to it, and the ball bounced in past a wrong-footed Tzorvas in the Greek goal. Greece weren’t entirely toothless at this stage of the game, but apart from a Kyrgiakos header over they were mostly restricted to shots from range. From fifty yards out, in the case of Katsouranis. But with Nigeria down to ten, and the immediate introduction of another forward in Giorgios Samaras, the chances started to come. Karagounis and Katsouranis combined to set Gekas clear on the inside right, but ‘keeper Vincent Enyeama dived well at his feet. A couple of minuts later, Hanura cleared off the line from a Samaras flick on the end of a corner.
Another couple of minutes later and they were level. Kostas Katsouranis was at the centre of most of Greece’s better work, much as the BBC panel were to give him a pasting at half-time for his part in Nigeria’s goal, and it was from his lay-off that Dimitris Salpigidis fired in his country’s first ever World Cup goal, though it was a wicked deflection that took it in at the far post with Enyeama ready to make a comfortable save at the near.
Half-time gave the Nigerians some respite, but Greece were now smelling blood and before long were coming back at them. It took some fine saves from Enyeama, particularly a finger-tip save from a Samaras header, to keep them at bay. Just before the hour the game could, and probably should, have swung either way with both ‘keepers making excellent saves in the space of fifteen seconds. First Yobo miscued a header into the path of Gekas, but Enyeama was there again to make a block; Nigeria broke, with the aid of a well-judged advantage from the Colombian referee, and a couple of swift passes later Yakubu was one-on-one at the other end. Credit here to Tzorvas – Yakubu did try to place it wide of him but he got a glove to it to turn it away. The rebound dropped to a green shirt with the goal now gaping but Obasis couldn’t control it and it fell tamely wide.
Enyeama had had a good game against Argentina as well, making a number of stops from Messi in particular, but as is so often the way of things, it was eventually his mistake that led to Greece’s winner after 70 minutes. Tziolis’s shot from the edge of the D didn’t look troublesome, but Enyeama spilled it, a la Green, and Torosidis was following up to poke it home. Greece continued to press for a third, for a bit, before settling back and seeing out the game. Yakubu had a shot that whistled wide, but Greece had na major scares and had a couple more half-chances themselves in injury time.
There’s no doubt they deserved the win on the even if there’s no way of knowing what would have happened without Kaita’s moment of madness. But it’s still difficult to see those three points taking them very far, they must take at least something from Argentina to stand a chance of going through – and technically Argentina still have something to play for, although Greece would have to beat them by at least three as well as South Korea winning comfortably for them to miss out. Perversely Nigeria probably still have a better chance than Greece, despite being stuck on the bottom with no points. Any win against South Korea would be enough for them to get second place on goal difference if Argentina also win. On the performances so far, however, and despite their mauling today, the smart money is surely on the Koreans to join Argentina in the second round.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.