- 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.

“I’m glad they are at home,” said Nikolopulos, who arrived on a morning flight from London.

Before Samaras met with lawmakers in Athens on Friday afternoon, he could read headlines fueling national wishes to repel German policy on the field: “Bankrupt Them!” read Greek paper SportDay, as Derby News repeated the Spartan motto “Come and Get it.”

In Germany, the best-selling daily Bild led with: “Bye bye Greece; we can’t rescue you today.”

Nikolopulos, who is originally from Athens, said the feeling back home is that “Germany has put them in the corner” over the euro currency crisis.

“This is Greece’s opportunity to stand up and try to go back to being historical wonders,” he said, with a blue-and-white striped national flag draped across his shoulders.

Greece fans takes faith in their team’s surprise run to be Euro 2004 champion, founded on the same solid defense and dogged resistance shown by the current team in Poland. For three-time European champion Germany, the match seems more routine _ aiming for its fourth straight semifinal at each World Cup and Euro since Greece’s golden year.

“For me, it’s a normal football match,” said German fan Klaus Lehmkuhl, a technical consultant from Muenster. “I don’t think the politics is important for the German team.”

Still, some off-field tensions are expected when the German national anthem is played minutes before kickoff. And if images of Merkel sitting next to UEFA President Michel Platini in the VIP seats are shown on the stadium giant screens?

“There will be massive boos. I can’t see there not being some,” said Yiannis Televantibes, a real estate agent from London. “But there’s no problem between the fans.”

In Berlin, thousands of soccer fans waving German flags flooded the area in front of the landmark Brandenburg Gate. Organizers of the public viewing event said they expected around 400,000 to turn out to watch the match on large screens.

Earlier, a German deputy government spokesman was peppered with questions about the match and asked whether Merkel would feel the need to tone down any goal celebrations, because of the eurozone crisis.

“I think it depends a bit on how the game goes, but I think you will see that she is glad if there’s a goal on the right side,” Georg Streiter said.

Streiter also shrugged off a question as to whether Merkel would consider herself partly responsible if German loses.

“I think you would be loading up the chancellor, who already has plenty of packages to carry, with an unjustified package,” he said. “She’s a spectator.”


Associated Press writers David Rising and Juergen Baetz in Berlin, and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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