How Soccer Will Decide the Euro Crisis (It Won't)

Greek supporters celebrate Greece's victory over Russia at the Euro 2012 tournament in front of Parliament in central Athens. Photograph by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Georgios Samaras, “the Greek Jesus of Football,” gave a short sermon to reporters in Warsaw. “It’s a bad thing for you to start to make stories and compare football and sports with politics,” he told them. “It’s just a game. We’re going to play and enjoy it because we love it, nothing else.” Samaras and the rest of the Greek national team play Germany on Friday in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Euro 2012 championship. The match is not, he wanted the assembled press to know, to be made into a subplot of the European debt crisis. He might as well have asked Greeks to pay taxes on their swimming pools.

“Greeks stay in the Euro,” is how London’s Sun reported Greece’s victory over Russia last week. “Bring us Merkel,” demanded Greece’s Goal News. “You will never get Greece out of the euro,” the paper told the German chancellor, which is a bit like a deadbeat son boasting to his parents that he will never move out of their basement. “This is how your debtors qualify, Angela, get ready,” added Sport Day. “Rejoice, dear Greeks,” wrote Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper, “your bankruptcy on Friday is on us! No bailout will help you against [German coach] Joachim Loew.” We imagine every tabloid editor on the continent making two lists of headlines for after the match: “Now that’s how you exit the Euro!” “Greece repays Germany in full.”

Samaras, who happens to share a name with the new Greek prime minister, should have known better. “Soccer is never just soccer,” as Simon Kuper wrote in Soccer Against the Enemy in 1994, especially when the Germans are involved. While the Guardian has dubbed Friday’s contest “the ultimate grudge match,” this title probably belongs to the semifinal between Holland and Germany at the European championship in 1988. When the Dutch won, as Kuper writes, “nine million [people], over 60 percent of the population, came out into the streets.” It was the largest public gathering since the end of the German occupation in 1945. “It feels as though we won the war at last,” said a former Dutch Resistance fighter.

This is, of course, lunacy. The Dutch victory in 1988 changed nothing about the Second World War. And a Greek victory in Gdansk on Friday would not wipe away the country’s debts—though that would make things interesting for Merkel, who plans to attend. Yet it is a mass lunacy. Thousands danced in the streets in Athens after Greece beat Russia. And they did not shy away from politics. “The result is a message to politicians, to everyone that Greece won’t die and never bows to anyone,” one 62-year-old reveler told the Associated Press. (Someone should alert the IMF.) Sixteen-year-old fan Vassiliki Sfika gave Reuters a more realistic appraisal: “Finally we can show the Germans that they may have the money but we have the team.” Well said, young lady, though that “may” is probably misplaced.

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