Angela Merkel can expect a noisy reception in Gdansk but both sides want to forget the eurozone crisis and focus on football
The Guardian, 21 June, 2012
Football is no stranger to face-offs that reach beyond the pitch. England v Argentina in the post-Falklands 1986 World Cup was one, Iran v “the Great Satan” USA in 1998 another. West Germany v East Germany in 1974 was fun at the time.
And on Friday at Euro 2012 comes debt-crippled Greece, in its fifth year of recession and with a third of the population living below the poverty line, against the mighty Germany, its biggest creditor and the country many Greeks blame for the severity of the austerity measures they are now enduring.
At such times there may not be too many on the streets of Athens going so far as to echo Bill Shankly’s legendary words: “Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that.” But for some the encounter in Gdansk has been elevated to a level above mere sport since the moment the teams booked their quarter-final places.
The Greek media have been in overdrive. The Sports Day newspaper urged “Bring it on”; a sports website declared “Greece will never exit the Euro” (pun intended); another howled “Get us Merkel now”. They will have that wish, after the German chancellor announced she would attend the match. “It will be a good sporting event, and I hope that it will be a very fair sporting event,” she told reporters in Berlin.
The 20,000 German fans expected to make the trip to Poland will give her a warm welcome.
The Greeks, however, will prepare a rather different reception. It was reported that the Greek tourist board had asked TV networks to keep the crowd volume low amid fears Greek fans in the stadium would drown out the German national anthem with jeers.
“Greeks want revenge,” Berliner Morgenpost said. “Friday’s match is more than a game for them. They want a night when big Germany will suffer.” Germany’s bestselling paper, Bild, which has handed out drachmas in Athens and urged Greece to sell an island to help pay off its debt, trumpeted: “For 90 minutes it will be about more than just football. The euro crisis will be playing too. Rejoice, dear Greeks, defeat will be for free on Friday! No bailout will help you against [the German team’s coach] Joachim Löw!”
Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who led the Greek side to a surprise victory at Euro 2004 and says “part of my heart is still Greek”, added to the piquancy by declaring that when “Greeks have faith, they fear no one. Success is good for the Greek soul.”
The Greek team, lampooned in cartoons in the foreign press including one showing them in a kit sporting a German eagle, as if sponsored by Germany, were more circumspect. The striker Georgios Samaras (unrelated to the new prime minister, Antonis) said people “cannot mix football and politics, simple as that. It’s a game. We’ll play.”
But they acknowledge its special context. “We’re playing for the country, for 11 million people waiting for a smile,” Samaras said. The midfielder Giannis Maniatis said the objective was to “give some happiness to the Greek people, make them celebrate in the street, given everything that’s going on”.
Germany’s squad diplomatically stuck to football. “We won’t underestimate them,” the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. “The Greeks could hurt us too.” Löw hailed the Greek team – can there be higher praise from a German? – as “masters of efficiency”.