His eyes fixed on the ball as it lay on the penalty spot, Georgios Samaras took four steps back and contemplated the task that awaited him, with 60,000 fans watching in the stadium and millions more back home in Greece, praying for him to slot the ball home and secure a place for his side in the Round of 16.
Only seconds remained of the group match with Côte d’Ivoire, with the score tied at 1-1 and the Greeks needing a win to advance to the knockout rounds of the FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time. While some would have buckled under the pressure, there was no question of Samaras coming up short.
Picking his spot to perfection, the Celtic man stepped up and stroked the ball into the bottom corner to take his team into the last 16 and send a nation wild with joy.
Nerves of steel
The ice-cool Samaras made it look like it was all in day’s work, which is exactly how he approached it, as he explained in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
“What did I feel at that moment in time? Nothing at all,” he said. “I just took the ball and placed it on the spot – me against the keeper. My mind was clear. I kept my focus and just tried to put it in the back of the net. I’ve done it thousands of times in training and a few times in matches. If you think about it, it makes no difference if there’s one person watching you at your club or thousands in a stadium.”
Samaras’ remarkable coolness and composure in converting the late penalty was reflected in his voice and his eyes as he spoke. Describing what was going through his head in the moments leading up to his match-winning kick, he said: “I knew exactly where I was going to put it before I started my run-up. I was so clear in my mind about it. All I had to do was just put it all into practice.”
The 29-year-old front man’s iron will was matched by that of his team-mates, who never doubted their chances of going through, even when the scoreline and the clock was against them.
“We never stop believing and we fight till the very last second,” explained the Greek hero. “As we all know, lots of games are decided in the final seconds, and not just any old games either. It’s happened in some massive matches, with two goals sometimes being scored in the closing seconds. In football you have to keep on trying to make things happen until the referee blows the final whistle.”
A turning point
The result was Greece’s biggest since they defied the odds to win UEFA EURO 2004. Ever since that landmark achievement the Greeks have had a reputation for trying to stop goals rather than score them. As Samaras pointed out, however, it is a reputation that the current side are anxious to shake off.
“I don’t think we’ve been defensive at all at this World Cup,” he said. “We lost our first game 3-0 but we tried to attack, and when we played Japan we had no alternative but to defend because we had a man sent off. Even then, we tried to hit on the break when we could.
“I felt that we pretty much controlled the game today. Our defence did a great job and we scored at the right times. To be honest we should have killed the game off when it was 1-0, but we hit the woodwork three times.”
Looking forward to the Round-of-16 tie with Costa Rica, a team the Greeks have never played before, Samaras said Greece already have a fair idea of what to expect:
“We know some of the Costa Rica players – the ones who play in Europe. We also watched their matches against Uruguay and Italy. Now we need to study them as a team, especially their strengths and weaknesses. We have to be competitive.”
Enjoying a lighter moment at the end of a night of high emotion, Samaras touched on his likeness to Tico star Bryan Ruiz, even if in his opinion, there is one fundamental difference between the two.
“He doesn’t have a beard and I do,” he said with a smile. “He doesn’t have time to grow one now and I’m not going to shave mine off, so there’s no danger of anyone getting us mixed up. Joking aside, he’s an excellent player with a great career in Dutch football. We’re going to be taking him and his team very seriously and we’ll try to beat them.”