Ahead of Euro 2012 Germany-Greece soccer match, emotions are intense

ATHENS — Everyone knows the score before a game starts. It is 0 to 0. The playing field is level. The referee is fair. The rules favor no one. If only such principles were seen as applying to the euro currency union, the emotions over Friday’s Euro 2012 soccer quarterfinals between Greece and Germany would not be so intense.

“We are taking this personally,” David Kouris said as he took a cigarette break with a group of friends huddled under a tree in downtown Athens for shade against the scorching Mediterranean sun. They’ve listened to two years of European wrangling over whether to bail Greece out and German preaching about the virtues of thrift.

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In this comedy sketch from Monty Python, Germany's and Greece's most famous ancient and contemporary philosophers battle on the field not only for goals but for moral and intellectual victory.

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“They’ve made fun of us,” Kouris continued. “We are going to give it everything tomorrow. We don’t even need to go to the finals. Just beat Germany.”

Germany. The country that would not surrender its deutsche mark until the terms of the currency union were to its liking. The country that insisted on a “no bailout” clause in the euro zone’s founding treaty to try to make sure other countries would manage their finances prudently. The country that makes the European Central Bank — the currency union’s referee — quick to red cardpenalize inflation but less sensitive to other infractions, such as rising unemployment.

And yes, the country that has put perhaps $600 billion of its own treasure behind an assortment of schemes to fix the euro’s problems, a sum that includes bilateral loans to Greece.

Still, when the two nations meet at a stadium in Poland on Friday night, a different currency will be involved: pride.

The loans and other help from Germany have come with an extensive — and, to Greeks, humiliating — set of strings attached, including wage cuts and government budget cuts among them. Many here blame Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, directly for Greece’s declining living standards.

Friday is the time for a bit of payback in an arena where Greeks feel they have a fighting chance. In 2004, Greece won the UEFA European Football Championship, a quadrennial tournament second only to the World Cup in soccer stature, but they are considered a long shot this time. The team is a 10 to 1 underdog against Germany, according to the bookies. Financial analysts offer better odds that Greece will eventually leave the euro zone. While the German team waltzed through the Euro 2012’s “Group of Death” bracket with three consecutive wins, Greece limped to the quarterfinals with a loss against the Czechs and a tie with the Poles, only to be redeemed with an unexpected victory against the Russians.

That set the stage for what everyone here wanted.

“Greeks do take responsibility for where the country has come to, but they feel a big part has been played by Germany,” said Tasos Kollintzas, a soccer analyst for the country’s ANT1 television station. He acknowledged that the Greek team faces an uphill battle — seeded low at the start of the tournament and now lacking its captain, George Karagounis, who was disqualified as a penalty for two
yellow-card violations.

But he added, “What we lack in talent we make up for in other virtues. Spirit. Determination. Pride. Those are the values that represent this team and what this country needs to move ahead.”

Greece’s finances are plenty knotted. The government is broke because it borrowed too much. Local banks are broke because they loaned too much. People are broke because they thought the torrent of money that flowed into Greece when the euro was established was rightfully earned and belonged to them. In fact, much of it was borrowed, a binge made possible by cheap interest rates set by the ECB. (Germany was growing too slowly and needed cheap credit.)

But the Greeks’ emotional state is even more complicated — a mix of shame at the exposure of long-standing problems such as corruption in government and the statism that still holds back the economy, anxiety about the future, embarrassment over the country’s massive public and private debt, and, of course anger over what has become a two-year lecture by the rest of Europe and the world about what they need to do.

The Germans have their point of view as well — that they shouldn’t have to pay someone else’s bills just because Germany spent the first decade of the euro working hard, investing and tuning up its economy to compete in the global market.

When the two sides qualified for the quarterfinals over the weekend, the inevitable rounds of rubbing it in began.

“Yes, They Are Afraid Of Us,” Greece’s Sport Day magazine blared in a cover headline this week. Germany’s Bild, meanwhile, sent an “undercover” reporter to the hotel where the Greek national team is staying and riffed about the fancy coffee machines they brought along and the lowbrow, insult-filled way that team captain Karagounis addressed his teammates.

To fans here, the game has no downside — a loss is expected, while a win would be a boost of adrenaline and a grand in-your-face to Merkel. There are jokes about how to turn the tables more fully — borrow another half a trillion dollars from the ECB, run it all through the offshore gambling houses in a massive over-under bet on the total number of goals scored, and have the Greek goalie take a powder.

At a street-side stand, 23-year-old Stelias Parianos was selling Greek flags and Euro 2012 scarves ahead of the game. He has survived on odd jobs for the past three years, and said he’d be happy just for a close match.

“The politicians have already messed it up,” he said. “Let’s hope the players do better.”

 
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