Wed, Jun 20, 2012 - Page 20 News List

EURO 2012: Cash-strapped minnows relishing Germany clash

Reuters, WARSAW

Every once in a while a sports tournaments pits two nations against each other for whom the confrontation could not be more timely.

Greece progressed from the Euro 2012 group stage against all expectations and they next play Germany on Friday for a place in the semi-finals. In Athens, the soccer clash is being relished.

“Get us Merkel now,” screamed several sport Web sites, once the meeting with Germany was clear.

“Bring it on,” Greek newspaper Sport Day wrote.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a deeply unpopular figure in Greece for the tough austerity principles she has imposed on the country mired in debt, where optimism about the future is in short supply.

After weeks of political turmoil, voters on Sunday gave parties supporting a bailout a slim parliamentary majority, to the rest of the euroszone’s intense relief.

“This is the classical case of a football match that will carry a meaning that goes well beyond sport,” said Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German of Greek descent who is a centrist member of the European parliament.

“The atmosphere is reminiscent of World War II,” he told Italian daily La Stampa, referring to the military conflict that tore Europe apart in which Nazi Germany occupied Greece.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle took a more diplomatic view.

“It will be a German-Greek football party,” he said.

With several dangerously indebted nations competing in the tournament, Europe’s economic crisis has constantly lurked in the background as politicians from all countries hope success on the pitch can lift the national gloom.

Several coaches have given bemused or irritated responses when questioned about eurozone austerity programs when they would rather talk about tactics.

Among the eurozone countries struggling hardest with debt, Portugal and Greece have secured quarter-final berths, while Spain and Italy did the same on Monday. For the Republic of Ireland, their tournament dreams are over.

A group of Ireland fans won Internet fame when posing with a banner saying: “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work.”

Greece, who staged the largest upset of the tournament when knocking out Russia 1-0 to earn their quarter-final spot, know the joy they are bringing to their country.

“The most important thing for us is to give some happiness to the Greek people, that’s all, to make them celebrate in the street, given everything that is going on,” midfielder Giannis Maniatis said on Monday.

The team have faced widespread mockery, such as a cartoon of a Greece player jumping to catch and pocket a coin flipped by the referee, or the Greece team in jerseys emblazoned with an eagle, suggesting Germany is their sponsor.

Greek conservative leader Antonis Samaras, who won Sunday’s election and who wants to renegotiate Greece’s bailout deal, was jokingly asked if he would also negotiate with Angela Merkel about the match.

“No, this is not negotiable,” he laughed.

Top-selling German daily Bild, which has often ribbed Greece by handing out drachmas in Athens — the country’s pre-euro currency — or suggesting the country sell an island, is readying for the battle.

“The Greek team is rubbish compared to world-class stars. The Greek players are shelf warmers whose time is up. But this team has got something which they didn’t learn from training. Their country is in a state of emergency. They have to help their country,” Franz Josef Wagner wrote. “Their country is fighting a losing battle. A losing battle is a place for heroes. The Greeks played so their country could rise from the ashes and smile again.”

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