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Greeks make Euro 2012 exit with pride in tact

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GDANSK, Poland — Greece came close to making a sorry exit from the European Championship, before fighting back to at least rescue the footballing pride of a nation that has been exhausted by crisis.

The 2004 champions reached the last eight before eventually losing 4-2 to Germany in Gdansk on Friday — a sporting clash that was played out amid the eurozone crisis and ultimately produced more celebration than bitterness.

"We leave with pride. We fought as much as we could," said Greece striker Dimitris Salpigidis, who set up Georgios Samaras' equalizer before scoring a late penalty.

"I hope the Greeks got some encouragement from watching us fight."

They did.

"We're Proud of You," Greek daily SportDay wrote in its banner headline on Saturday, while GoalNews added: "We owe you, and we love you."

Greece was unlikely to reproduce its triumph of eight years ago, but it did spark street celebrations in Athens and other cities when it knocked Russia out of the tournament in a 1-0 upset in their final group game. It was the first real public expression of joy since the country sank into deep financial trouble in late 2009.

"We had a dream and that was what motivated us," said coach Fernando Santos, whose team has lost just three games in its last 25. "What we take away from the tournament is that we played with heart and soul — the passion."

Greece began the group stage by drawing 1-1 against tournament co-host Poland, with Salpigidis finding the net. However, it then looked to have thrown away its chances of advancing to the quarterfinals by losing 2-1 to the Czech Republic after conceding two goals in the opening six minutes.

Santos promptly abandoned his attacking lineup to concentrate on Greece's renowned defense. The Russians attacked it for 70 minutes in Warsaw and got nowhere.

They lost in frustration after captain Giorgos Karagounis poached the ball from the Russian defense and scored, on a night tht he equaled a national appearance record of 120 matches.

Before Friday's game in Gdansk, Germany coach Joachim Loew compared Greece's defense to "a rock."

Germany, which has won every qualifier and every Euro 2012 match so far, did manage to break that rock eventually, though only after Greece had held off a barrage of attacks in the first half.

Despite its defeat, the losing team left Poland with hope, not disappointment, after younger players earned regular places in the lineup.

Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a 20-year-old defender, was a tournament standout for Greece, pairing up at the back with 23-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Yiannis Maniatis, 25, also eased his way into Greece's aging midfield, while youngsters Costas Fortounis and Giorgos Tzavelas also showed promise.

"We have a young team and a good future in front of them," said veteran midfielder Costas Katsouranis, who captained the squad on Friday. "I am proud to have been their captain tonight."

In Greece, city residents watched the Germany match at outdoor cafes in the middle of a heatwave, cheering and consoling each other, on a night when the country could try and forget about its crisis.

Inspired by its national team's efforts, the feeling of Greek pride may well last all weekend.

But the debt inspectors from Greece's EU-IMF rescue creditors return to Athens on Monday.