Evening Standard

Pain game: Giorgos Karagounis is stunned by his booking, forcing him to miss the clash with Germany. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The economic collapse in Greece may force the country out of the euro but for Giorgos Karagounis, captain of their football team, that is no reason to forget your naturally generous instincts.

I was about to pay for the coffee the interpreter had ordered when Karagounis, who had not spoken a word of English during our hour-long chat, gestured to the waiter and said: “No, no I pay.” With that he smiled and went off for the English lessons he has been taking since arriving at Fulham on a free transfer last month after being released by Panathinaikos.

Not that the man who is joint Greek record-holder for caps — 120 — lives in a football bubble, oblivious to the pain his country is going through.

“This is a really bad situation for Greece. The people have huge problems which are very serious: families don’t even have money to buy food. Everyone and everything is affected by the crisis, football as well.

“There has been mismanagement [of the economy] from some people but Greece will recover. We will not leave the euro and go back to the drachma. There have been many mistakes over the last years. At the moment it’s a hard situation without question but I shall always be very proud to be Greek.

“Greece deserves the highest respect from the world because most of the things that exist in the world were born in Greece: the Olympic Games, democracy, all these things.”

And, as his peroration ends, his voice rises as if to say this is no rhetorical flourish.

As a well-paid footballer, he admits: “I cannot feel the way common people feel it but I have relatives who have problems. When you see people suffering it affects you and you are not in a good mood.”

The Greek team did all they could to lift the nation’s spirits at Euro 2012, reaching the quarter-finals where they lost 4-2 to Germany.

“We were trying to give some joy to the people of Greece,” says Karagounis. “We were very happy that, by getting to the knock-out phase, it made Greek people happy.”

Karagounis scored the goal which defeated Russia and sent Greece through but he picked up his second booking of the tournament after arguing with referee Jonas Eriksson over his refusal to award a penalty.

That booking ruled him out of the quarter-final and he admits Greece’s elimination was “a really bad experience”. Given the anger about the austerity programme the Germans have imposed on the Greeks this was billed as a grudge match but Karagounis says the wider economic situation had no bearing on the match.

“I didn’t care if it was the Germans,” says the midfielder. “We just wanted to win but we didn’t and I didn’t even play. Against Russia, the referee gave me a yellow card which was 100 per cent unfair.”

Karagounis, 35, has not played for Greece since, having been overlooked for last month’s World Cup qualifiers because he was without a club but is determined to lead his country to Brazil. “The World Cup is the World Cup and it’s glorious and very big.

“It’s more important than club football because the eyes of the whole world are on you.”

And then, recalling how Greece won Euro 2004, with Karagounis scoring the first goal of the tournament in a surprise victory over hosts Portugal, he says: “It is more important to win with your country than your club. I want to play until the next World Cup in 2014 and terminate my career playing for the national team.”

This marks a sharp change in the player’s thinking. In 2009, after spells with Inter Milan and Benfica, ¬Karagounis returned to Panathinaikos, the club where he started his career as an 18-year-old, declaring this would be his final club.

Now he confesses: “I did say that but you cannot take anything for granted in life. You may plan something but something different comes up.”

However, he insists his decision to leave Greece was not because of the economic situation but the usual football reason — falling out with the coach, who in this case was Jesualdo Ferreira. “We had a few disagreements. I did not play as much as I wanted to. Most of the time he didn’t play me at all. It was very hard for me to accept that.”

Karagounis has no such fears about Fulham, who signed him on a one-year contract having sold Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele to Tottenham. Fulham manager Martin Jol likes ¬foreign players, having fielded this season no fewer than 16 nationalities.

“Fulham are one of the eight best teams of the Premier League and of course the League is one of the best leagues in the world,” says Karagounis, who made his debut in Saturday’s defeat to Manchester City. “Most of the things here are the way I expected them to be. Fulham are very well organised, maybe in some particular things more organised than Inter Milan, not that I want to compare the two clubs.

“Martin Jol is a very experienced coach. I can see the coach wants to play football the right way, with the ball on the ground.”

And he has no worries understanding Jol. “He tries to speak slowly so that I can understand. In a few weeks my English will be better and there is no problem understanding football ¬terminology.”

It helps that Jol is Dutch and not English, says Karagounis. “There are two kinds of English; the English that foreigners speak and the English that English people speak which I find very difficult to understand.”

But, despite the language problems he has with the natives, he has worked out how different football fans are here compared to his own country.

“The Greeks are very loud during the whole of the game. They are singing and doing crazy things. Here the crowd cheer the athletes at the moment that they’re going to score. They have to have proof that something good will happen before they react.

“Another big difference is that in Greece, if you are the loser then the athletes have a big problem. They can’t even leave their house because the crowds are very upset. They are asking them ‘why did you lose?’ all the time. In Greece, if you are the winner you are like God; if you are the loser, you’re nothing. The English crowds are very good, they’re more controlled. If you win they are happy but if you lose it is still okay, they allow you to go home. Not like Greece. Also, the Greek media are very ferocious. We have 12 sports newspapers. It’s a country of 10 million people and there is a lot of pressure by the media.”

Karagounis accepts the England team also have to deal with an intense media focus, a view he formed during Euro 2004. That tournament was yet another one when England exited after a penalty shoot out and, says Karagounis: “In Euro 2004 people said there was a lot of stress in the English team. This is what’s believed about the English team, that the players were very stressed.”

The only stress in moving to London that Karagounis seems to be experiencing is from the weather. As we speak, he looks out at the rain and says: “It is 350C in Athens.” Nothing can be done about that although his move later this week from the Battersea hotel where he has been staying to a flat should help him feel more at home.

The matches he is looking forward to are against Manchester United and Arsenal. Back in 2000, he hit a memorable goal from a free-kick at Old Trafford for Panathinaikos in a Champions League group game and the following year scored with a thumping diving header at home to Arsenal.

“The games against Arsenal and Manchester are special but Old Trafford was the best because I scored there.”

Karagounis will not get a chance to repeat his Old Trafford performance this season but is determined that by the time United visit Craven Cottage in February his English should have improved. However, should he disagree with the referee’s decision, he says: “I will speak Greek.”

Hopefully, that will stop him falling foul of the officials again.


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