ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s crippling financial crisis has a popular survivor: It’s national football team.
In the four years since the World Cup in South Africa, little appears to have changed in how its players win games.
They have kept their instinct for a decisive late goal, have added few famous names to their roster, and boast a never-daunted defense that has kept the country impossibly in the top 10 of the world rankings.
It’s those ingredients that helped Greece win the 2004 European Championship and made the team a regular at major tournaments since — a rare success story in a country struck by financial crisis that battered everything from public health to achievement in most other sports.
Defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos says the Greeks’ hardship motivates his teammates to play harder.
“We’ve always had a great atmosphere in the team,” the Borussia Dortmund players said. “Everyone’s proud to be playing for Greece and the prospect of reaching the second round would bring joy to people who are going through hard times.”
Greece qualified for the World Cup by way of the playoffs, eliminating Romania over two legs, but only missed direct qualification on goal difference after eight wins in 10 matches, conceding only four goals.
In Brazil, the Greeks will take on Colombia, Japan, and then Ivory Coast, in a draw considered troubling as Greece struggles to contain pacey players.
“It is a tough group because all the teams in it can beat each other,” Papastathopoulos said. “We’ll definitely be looking for something positive in the first game against the Colombians.
Greece is coached by Fernando Santos, a stout 59-year-old former defender from Portugal who took over in 2010 from Otto Rehhagel.
When the crisis hit Greece, the country’s top footballers followed the doctors, IT workers and engineers in packing their bags and heading for jobs abroad.
Once major domestic clubs AEK Athens — relegated after financial collapse — and Panathinaikos now contribute just one player to the national team. In 2004, they sent 10 players to the winning 23-man squad.
As footballers found work abroad, sport at home suffered from axed state grants and dried up private sponsorship, during a financial crisis erased a quarter of the country’s economy and threw more than a million people out of work.
The Greek medal tally at the Athens Olympics a decade ago was six golds, six silvers and four bronze. At the London Games in 2012 it was down to just two bronze medals, as plush Olympic facilities around Athens lay empty and managers at training sites struggled to pay the electricity bills.
Now, more than half the Greek World Cup squad plays abroad, including captain Giorgos Karagounis at Fulham, the Bundesliga’s Papastathopoulos — Greece’s most expensive player — and Georgios Samaras, the outgoing Celtic striker.
Now 37, Karagounis led his team Friday to Athens airport to travel to warm-up matches in Portugal and the United States, before flying on to Brazil.
“We will of course give it everything we have,” he said. “I am feeling lucky to be getting on this plane to start our big adventure.”
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