Few games in the European soccer championships will illustrate the continent’s shifting fortunes better than tonight’s opener.
Poland, the host of the quadrennial tournament with Ukraine and the fastest-growing economy in the European Union, takes on Greece, the epicenter of the debt crisis that’s afflicting every one of the group’s 27 members. Soccer fans from Athens to Thessaloniki are counting on a little respite.
“I hope, as all Greeks do, that the national team plays well but it’s more to help us forget for a little bit all the problems in general going on around us at the moment,” said Zisis Pouros, 38, a garbage collector in the Greek capital. “Even if the team wins or does well people will still celebrate but people will watch those games to forget about everyday problems, whether there will be work tomorrow or enough food.”
Originally started in 1960, three years after the formation of what became the EU, the soccer championships this year involve a Europe that is divided more than at any time since the collapse of communist rule in 1989. While matches pairing up teams from east and west used to highlight ideological differences, now it’s north and south and it’s financial.
Odds-makers put Spain, which is pressing for EU help to bail out its banks, as favorite to win the tournament ahead of Germany, the euro region’s paymaster. Spain is 11-4 and Germany is 3-1. Poland is 40-1 to win it, while Greece is 50-1, according to U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc’s website.
“We all know what we have to do and a special reason is the living conditions in the country,” said Giorgos Karagounis, captain of the Greek national team. “We will take part in the competition without stress and pressure and we’ll give it everything with the hope that we will again see happy times.”
Poland is in its second tournament after qualifying for its first championship in 2008, when Greece played as the trophy-holder after upsetting the odds and winning four years earlier.
Marek Belka, Poland’s central bank president, said this week he would cheer for Greece in the tournament had the two teams not been drawn to play each other.
“I’d be keeping my fingers crossed for them,” Belka said at a press conference in Warsaw after the June 6 meeting on interest rates. “There’d be no better psychological kick for the Greeks than to see their team do well in the European championships. So let’s root for the Greeks.”
The largest of the former Soviet satellite states, the Polish economy is set to grow 2.7 percent this year, the fastest pace in the EU, the European Commission said on May 11. Greece, which joined the euro in 2001 as notes and coins were being introduced, is predicted to shrink by 4.7 percent in 2012, the fifth straight year of recession.
“Unfortunately for Poland, economic strength has nothing to do with soccer results,” said Mateusz Szczurek, ING Groep NV’s chief economist for central and eastern Europe, who is based on Warsaw and plans to go to the game. “In 1982, Poland won third place in the World Cup as its communist economy was in ruins and politically it was under Martial Law.”
Poland still has a way to go to catch up with Greek living standards. Although moving in opposite directions, per capita gross domestic product in Poland is still about 26 percent below what it is in Greece, which joined the EU 23 years earlier in 1981, based on Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics.
Four years ago, the credit crunch had yet to become the debt crisis. Roll back another four and Poland was beginning life as an EU member while Greece was spending euros to host the Olympics and its soccer team became European champion under the stewardship of a German coach. Victory in 2004 was during a year of Greece’s greatest modern triumphs, according to locals.
“At that time Greece was in another condition, we had the Olympic Games, the economy was in a better financial situation,” Sophocles Pilavios, president of the Hellenic Football Federation, said on June 3 as the Greek team set off for Euro 2012. “Now we are in very poor condition but this is something that happens here. We will try to do whatever we can so the Greeks will be proud of their team and their country.”