Chancellor Angela Merkel will be cheering from the stands tomorrow as Europe’s austerity battle moves to the soccer field, with Greece seeking retribution from the country that’s demanding spending cuts its citizens decry.
The Greeks are taking on record three-time title winner Germany in the second quarterfinal of the European Championship, the meeting of the top 16 teams in the region being held in Poland and Ukraine. The Germans are the only team to have won all three of the opening round matches, while Greece, the 2004 champion, is a surprise contender after upsetting Russia.
Germany is the biggest national contributor to the euro-region bailouts of indebted nations and the contest has stirred national emotions, with some seeing it as a chance to punish Greece for its spendthrift ways. Greeks, upset about Merkel’s insistence on austerity as a condition for aid, want to win at something. Greece has received two bailouts totaling 240 billion euros ($305 billion) from the European Union and International Monetary Fund during the debt crisis, now in its third year.
“David should beat Goliath, shouldn’t he?” said Thanassis Kounathis, a 53-year-old bus driver in Athens. “Someone has to teach them a lesson, even if it’s only in football. The EU started as an equal community where rich and poor have the same voice. Now Germany gives orders and everyone else follows.”
Favorite to Win
Merkel is scheduled to travel to Rome for a summit with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy on the day of the game. She will then fly to Gdansk, Poland, to attend the evening match, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said.
Germany is favorite to win the tournament at U.K. bookmaker William Hill, with odds of 2-1. That means a successful $1 bet will return $2 plus the original stake. Defending champion Spain has 5-2 odds, with Greece the long shot at 50-1.
Germany hasn’t lost in eight previous matches against Greece, winning five and drawing three, according to FIFA statistics. Germany has scored 17 goals to 7 by Greece in those meetings.
Germany has been the dominant team in the championship, which is held every four years. A young side featuring Real Madrid players Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira as well as Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the Germans finished top of Group B, scoring five times and allowing two goals.
The Greeks entered the final day of the opening round in last place in Group A, behind Russia, Czech Republic and Poland. They defeated Russia 1-0 with a goal from captain Giorgos Karagounis, a 35-year-old who played in the 2004 championship. The team -- which featured nine players from the Greek league in the Russia match -- finished with three goals and gave up the same amount.
None of those statistics count now as the countries and fans posture for moral supremacy.
Greek political leaders struck an agreement yesterday on a governing coalition that will seek relief from the austerity measures, with New Democracy head Antonis Samaras sworn in as prime minister.
New Democracy, which won a June 17 election with almost 30 percent of the vote, is joining forces with the socialist Pasok party, which finished third, and the sixth-place Democratic Left. They will hold 179 seats in the 300-member parliament.
The spending cuts and tax increases tied to the aid the country received have deepened a recession now in its fifth year and left more than one in five Greeks without jobs.
A win would be “a refreshing breath of fresh air and optimism for Greece,” said George Helakis, a sportscaster who gave the national team its nickname, the “pirate ship,” while commentating in the first game of the 2004 championship, which Greece won under German coach Otto Rehhagel.
“It would be a message that Greece can stand up to footballing and economic powers,” he said. “It would be symbolic only, practically it wouldn’t mean anything.”
Chrisostomos Bikatzik, a spokesman for Samaras’s New Democracy party, declined to comment on whether Samaras will attend tomorrow’s game, which begins at 8:45 p.m. Berlin time.
“For myself, I would be happy if he comes to Gdansk,” Merkel said late yesterday. “I hope it will be a great sporting event and that it will be a very fair sporting event.”
War of Words
German and Greek newspapers have fought a war of words over who’s to blame for Europe’s crisis, which has raised the specter of a breakup of the euro and a Greek exit from the monetary union, and who should pay for it.
Greek publications have vilified Merkel and drawn Nazi-era comparisons to Germany’s debt-crisis management and perceived interference in domestic issues.
Bild Zeitung, Germany’s most widely read newspaper, in an open letter to the Greek people published the day before the June 17 election, said Greeks had the choice between “painful rationality and total destruction.”
Many Germans blame Greece for the region’s economic struggles, and the weakness of the euro, and see tomorrow’s match as an opportunity for vindication.
“If I were really honest, I would be more angry about losing to Greece than being defeated by another country,” said Katharina Molnar, a 25-year-old German, who spoke while watching Spain defeat Croatia in a restaurant in Frankfurt on June 18. “Because of the crisis you tend to project an image of the country on the players, even if that’s unfair.”
The crisis is stretching Europe’s defenses as its leaders try to protect Italy and Spain from the contagion. Spain’s 10-year bond yield rose above 7 percent this week, reaching a euro-era record.
The German economy, Europe’s biggest, is losing momentum as the crisis curbs demand for its goods. Investor confidence fell the most in 14 years in June, the ZEW Center for Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany, said this week. Exports, factory orders and industrial production all fell in April and business sentiment waned in May.
“The game is not only about football but also about honor,” said Sophie Kennert, an 18-year-old student in Frankfurt. “The Greeks already have our money and they should not get our victory as well.”