- Associated Press - Friday, June 22, 2012

GDANSK, POLAND (AP) - Now for the really important business between Greece and Germany: Soccer.

On Friday, thousands of fans from the two nations at opposite ends of the eurozone financial crisis converged on neutral Polish turf for a European Championship quarterfinal match.

For Greece fans, Friday’s clash in Gdansk inevitably mixes sports and politics, Euro 2012 and the euro currency. They seek respect for their country after its humiliating economic collapse _ and the German government’s role in imposing strict austerity measures as a condition of Greece getting (EURO)240 billion ($300 billion) in bailout pledges.

“It’s not good that sports and politics are together, but today we have no other choice,” Greece fan Michalis Kalotrapesis said, wearing a white national team shirt and tracksuit top. “We are playing for our country and for our image in Europe and all over the world.”

Kalotrapesis, and three Greek friends who now live in Germany, drove through the night to support their native nation here. Their pride in performing what they see as a patriotic duty fits into Greece’s favored national narrative: In soccer as in finance, Germany is the traditional power and Greece the spirited underdog.

“We are a little bit crazy, but it’s the Greek mentality,” said Nikos Barzas, pointing out the bloodshot eyes of the group’s designated driver, Georgios Kotiniotis. They left Gifhorn, Germany, at midnight with 750 kilometers (about 465 miles) of roads ahead of them.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will attend the match after morning economic meetings in Italy that were brought forward to help fulfill her role as the supposed lucky charm of the national team.

Barzas is glad she is coming _ to further spur the team and 5,000 Greece fans expected to attend the match.

“(The players will) fight a little bit more because (they want) to beat Angela Merkel. (It would be) a little bit of a small kick in Germany’s (backside),” he said.

About 15,000 Germans were expected to go to the match, according to the Football Supporters Europe group. Many of the Germans arrived at Gdansk’s main train station, where the scalpers’ asking price was (EURO)200 (about $250) for a ticket with a face value of (EURO)75 ($95). There didn’t appear to be any Greek fans in the market for them.

Cafes in the narrow cobbled street were occupied by either camp of genial beer-drinking fans. As the street filled up and drinks flowed, a large German flag had claimed the iron fence surrounding the ornate Neptune’s fountain. Nearby, Greek fans waving an even larger flag occupied the steps leading up the main town hall. On the Motlawa river bank, fans stopped to get their faces painted in team colors, with accordions being played in the background.

Confident German fans could plan ahead of Euro 2012 for a likely quarterfinal in Gdansk. Fans from the Greek Diaspora knew only last Saturday where to head after an upset win over Russia.

“I was actually happy for them (the Greeks) that they finally had something to celebrate,” said Stefan Leidig, a Germany fan from Koblenz. “Besides, I hope that they will manage to get out of the crisis at one point.”

Two days after being sworn into office, the prime minister of Greece’s new conservative-led coalition government is staying at home to work.

Antonis Samaras, a Harvard-educated former finance minister, is better employed stabilizing the country after a tense election last weekend than cheerleading at a soccer match, fan Thomas Nikolopulos said.

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