Sport is war minus the shooting, George Orwell once said. The European Football Championships 2012, currently being held in Poland and Ukraine, have so far been a fairly peaceful affair. Only Poland against Russia was a politically loaded match, illustrating deep-seated animosities harking back to decades of difficult relations between the two countries. Almost inevitably there were scuffles in the streets around the stadium.
When Greece made it through the first round of Euro 2012, the success was a boost to the self-confidence of a nation rattled by months of recession and political uncertainty. When Germany learned who they would have to play in the quarterfinals, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath by political Berlin.
“I am looking forward to our cooperation, which will enhance the traditionally deep friendship between our two nations,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in her congratulatory message to Greece’s new prime minister, Antonis Samaras.
But Mrs. Merkel’s unwavering refusal to renegotiate the harsh conditions for Greece’s two bailout packages ‒ strict austerity, privatization of state assets, reform of state authorities, and tax collection – has made her very unpopular among Greeks, and that emotion has permeated into soccer.
“I hope this match will be Angela Merkel’s first and last at these championships,” Greek goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis told his nation's media, referring to the fact that the chancellor is going to attend the match in Gdansk. Greek newspapers urged their national squad to “push Germany out of the Euro.” And even Germans are not sure if Merkel’s presence in the stadium will be a good idea.
“I truly hope that Mr. Samaras is going to be there too, sitting next to her,” says German columnist Hans-Ulrich Jörges. “Otherwise the Greeks really believe they are playing against Merkel.”
Here is the German dilemma: Of course they want to win the match. But do they want to do so at the price of more Greek misery? A look into the Twittersphere reveals that many Germans would answer that question with a resounding “Yes.” “Dear Greeks, score one goal against us and we ask our money back,” a German Twitter user threatens. Another advises the Greeks that losing the match “is free of charge.” And there is this picture being re-Tweeted over and over of the Greek national squad's jersey sporting the logo of the German finance ministry as sponsor.
There's been no such malice from German politicians, though, and according to Mr. Jörges, they are well-advised to keep their cool. “The chancellor should have gone to Greece to explain the German course in the eurocrisis,” he says. “Instead she left that to the German tabloids – a grave mistake.”
Whatever the outcome of the match, Germany could claim responsibility. “The whole DNA of our team is German,” says Christos Satirokopoulos, one of Greece’s most popular sports commentators. When Greece won the European Championship in 2004, their coach was Otto Rehhagel, a German who taught the team “how unity, concentration and discipline can take you very far,” Mr. Satirokopulos says. “And just as it took time to reform the squad, it will take time to reform the country.”