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Euro: The spillover effect

For thousands of Greeks and Germans, the quarterfinal of the Euro Cup was something more than a game

india Updated: Jun 24, 2012 01:27 IST
New York Times
New York Times

The giant blue-and-white flag blotted out the overcast Baltic sky on Friday as the Greek fans pounded their drums and cheered at the foot of the centuries-old City Hall in Gdansk, Poland. The Germans took up a chant in honour of their chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“Without Angie, you wouldn’t be here,” bellowed the German fans, referring to the multibillion-dollar bailouts Greece has received from European partners, first and foremost Germany.

“We’ll never pay you back,” countered the Greeks. “We’ll never pay you back.”

The leaders of Germany and Greece may be scrambling to hold Europe together, but on the popular level the strain of a three-year-old financial crisis is beginning to tear it apart. And while the European soccer championships have often served as a safe outlet for channeling nationalist passions into Europe’s favourite pastime, for thousands of Greeks and Germans — brought together by chance in the quarterfinals here — this encounter turned into something more than a game.

“They’ve provoked us with all of this terrible talk about Greece,” said Dimitrios Gorovelis, 33, part of a group from Aachen, in the far west of Germany, that had rented two silver vans and driven overnight to Poland. Some were originally from Greece and others were born in Germany, but they all were there to support the motherland.

For Greeks, Germany now represents austerity and foreign diktats. For Germans, the Greeks represent tax-dodging wastrels looking for handouts. “Goodbye Greeks,” declared the front page of the daily newspaper Bild on Friday; the paper has previously published calls for Greek islands and even the Acropolis to be sold. “Today we can’t rescue you,” the paper said.

“A lot of people, including myself, would have never thought even just a few short years ago that the relationship could deteriorate the way that it has,” said Janis A Emmanouilidis, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre who is half-Greek and half-German. He cited the ties of migration and tourism and the regard Germany held for Greece as the cradle of democracy and Greece for Germany as a model of efficiency.

Everyone from soccer experts to political analysts to fans cautioned that, in the end, the only thing on the line was the right to move on to the semifinals against the winner of the game between England and Italy. And for the most part, the mood before the game on Gdansk’s historic Dluga Street was peaceful and joyous.

Still, one middle-age Greek implored Germans in their own language, his voice quavering with anger, to stop teasing about pensions and poverty “before things escalate into violence”. A man in a German jersey rushed from the crowd and gave him a hug.

Outside the stadium after the game, which Greece lost handily to heavily favoured Germany, a group of Greek men dressed as Olympians of myth clapped and sang, while one danced in the aisle. “We Greeks don’t have money, but we have a big heart,” said Christos Mistridis, 33. The dancer shushed him and said, as if sharing a secret, “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work.”

The penalty kick that gave Greece its consolation goal near the end of the game was “a little present on top of the money we gave them,” said Hendrik Grote, who wore a German soccer jersey and lederhosen. “That’s enough now though.”

The tournament is held every four years, but this time around has been scrutinized from the very beginning through the kaleidoscope of the continent’s crisis, with Twitter users, headline writers and barroom wits comparing the records of bailout countries to triple-A-rated ones with more than a hint of schadenfreude.

Portugal, which was forced to seek financial assistance, was the first country to qualify for the semifinals. The Netherlands, a soccer powerhouse with a sterling credit rating, lost all of its matches. But nothing quite compared to this match, between the major antagonists of the crisis, who have been trading barbs for more than two years.

A mere eight years ago, Germans and Greeks alike celebrated Greece’s dark horse run to the title under a German coach, Otto Rehhagel, whom many took to calling “King Otto”, a reference to the Bavarian who became king of Greece in the 19th century. Greeks have made clear that they want Merkel as neither coach nor queen. Every time she appeared on the monitors in the stadium here cheering Germany on, the Greeks booed and whistled.

In Germany, there is frustration over what is perceived as insults in exchange for assistance. Nazi taunts at protests and in newspapers against the Germans, who invaded Greece during World War II, have not gone unnoticed in Berlin.

As for the game itself, enthusiasm and hope followed Greece’s equalising goal to tie the score at one apiece. But Germany came back with three second-half goals before Greece managed a penalty kick at the end. The final score: 4 to 2.

In Berlin, fans waving the country’s flag packed sidewalk cafes and a mile-long outdoor site where the game was broadcast live in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.

Across Athens, thousands watched the match on television in cafes and on large screens in squares festooned with Greek flags. At a cafe in the more expensive Kolonaki district, fans were more resigned to defeat. "We missed a good opportunity to take friendly revenge on Germany," said Yiorgos Fakanas, 50, a musician and composer. "There was a big symbolism in this game: Merkel has been pressing austerity on everyone. But all we could do is defend ourselves and keep our dignity."