DONETSK, Ukraine _ A double bill of German strength and Greek tragedy. Two for the price of one.
The bottom has fallen out of the Greek economy. More than one in five Greeks are out of work. They are miserable and surviving on rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund. So a short-lived jolt of joy could have done Greece some good.
Plus, the opponent, Germany, is the same country that has been pushing for Greece to get its finances in order and severely tighten its belt in return for bailouts. In short, this was a bit like the Greeks going toe-to-toe with their strict, no-nonsense bank manager.
In fact, she was there, in the stands, sitting next to the boss of European soccer, Michel Platini.
Angela Merkel likes her soccer and comfortably juggles serious business and serious pleasure. The German chancellor flew to the game in Poland from yet another meeting _ this one in Italy _ about what type of medicine should be administered to the European economy.
But no, the Greek players didn’t have “Sponsored by Germany” on their sober blue shirts.
And no, Merkel didn’t phone Antonis Samaras, Greece’s new prime minister, before the game to make an unspeakable offer: “Hey, about that money we lent you. … Could your team concede a couple of goals in return?”
The brutal truth is that Merkel didn’t need to. This German team, the youngest of the 16 competing at the European Championship, manages just beautifully on its own.
Merkel clapped in delight when Sami Khedira volleyed in Germany’s second goal, and looked pretty happy about the third, just minutes later, from Miroslav Klose, too. In Athens, Greek fans watching in cafes cursed at the TV screen and made rude hand gestures when Merkel was shown celebrating.
Greek sports journalist Vasilis Sambrakos wrote before the game on http://www.footballspeak.com about his hopes that his team would “send a message to everybody, especially Germans, that we are not lazy, we are not losers, we don’t feel like losers, we are not bankrupted, and we don’t feel or think that we are forced to give up our fight for a decent future, a decent life, a decent living in our country.”
Well, Sambrakos can consider his wish fulfilled. Greece didn’t embarrass itself. It didn’t simply surrender after Philipp Lahm opened the scoring for Germany. Georgios Samaras briefly pulled Greece level before Germany pulled away again for good. The final 4-2 score was a fair and accurate depiction of how Greece was comprehensively outplayed by a German team that should reach the July 1 final, and even win it.
As much as a Greece victory would have warmed sad Greek hearts, soccer is more logical than sentimental. Germany has 81 million people and Europe’s biggest economy that comfortably sustains its passion for soccer. Germany invested much money and effort over the past decade on the youth game to end up with the devastatingly quick and dynamic team it has today.
But there are just 11 million Greeks, their deep recession is in its fifth year, and their soccer is not as financially healthy. The Greek league’s last season began in disarray, with two teams demoted because of their owners’ involvement in a match-fixing scandal and another relegated because of unpaid debts. So, in that respect, too, this outcome at the Arena Gdansk made sense.
If it reaches the final, Germany could end up meeting another country with financial difficulties _ either Portugal or perhaps Spain.
Soccer, of course, is just a game. But because of the financial politics surrounding Euro 2012 match-ups, it’s starting to feel much more important than that.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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