By Max Grieve
Angela Merkel frowned, probably. Here was Giorgos Karagounis, a Greek man with a Greek name, taking the plaudits for something that they had both done; though not together. The Germans have kept the Greek economy alive - just - but it was Karagounis who bailed out the Greeks against Russia on Saturday.
Whoever Germany’s quarter-final opponent was going to be, there would always be darker clouds hanging over the match. Many had thought that Germany would face Poland, which would have had commentators the world over reaching for their 20th century history tomes, flicking through the pages that covered the Second World War. Alternatively, a meeting with the Russians might have awaited the Germans on the 22nd of June, on the anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Such has been Germany’s role in the shaping of modern Europe, it would come as little surprise for them to face any side at these European Championships and have it deemed as a grudge match of sorts.
What few expected was that the animosity that they shared with their quarter-final opponent would be derived from something far more recent than a rivalry from the World Wars. Rather, we are presented with a match with an immediate political, and indeed economic, history. The meeting between Greece and Germany will, in all likelihood, mean little else to the Germans than another inconvenience to their divine demolition of the European international football scene. They are amongst the favourites, if indeed they don’t stand alone at the top of such an esteemed pile. Greece, meanwhile, reside at the other end of the spectrum – yet here we are.
In Germany, Bild towered over the minnows: “Be happy dear Greeks, the defeat on Friday is a gift. Against Jogi Löw, no rescue fund will help you.”
"Bring us Merkel," Goal News replied. “You will never knock the Greeks out of the Euro”. The pun is very much intentional.
We are left, it seems, with a modern day David versus Goliath. As Greece struggles to find a sense of constructive national pride, Karagounis and his ensemble of similarly weary-looking men are striving to provide. We have seen shocks this year before. Not once, but twice, Chelsea defied the odds to win the European Cup. Manchester United effortlessly blew an eight point lead over Manchester City to effectively hand their rivals the title. Greece, by some miracle, clawed their way out of their group at Russia’s expense. This challenge goes beyond. Should Greece scrape past Germany, they will not be cleared of any debts – football doesn’t work like that. For a moment, however, its people might be allowed to forget that they are a nation in desperate crisis.
"Greeks want to stay in the euro [currency] and they will fight for their right to be in it," says Stavros Drakoularakos. "Despite the "lazy and corrupt" stereotypes that are attached to them lately, there is a young, well-educated generation who are working hard and are not afraid of bruises while working their way through austerity and reform.
"This is the mentality of the Greek national team and their players. They don’t have the talent of the Dutch, they don’t possess the flair of the Spaniards, they didn’t inherit the footballing culture of the Italians, they don’t even have the automated style of play of the Germans. But they have a fighting spirit and refuse to give up without giving their all."
Just as in politics, in the sporting sphere there are two distinct sides. There are those who believe Greece should be left to drown in the flood they have created for themselves, and those who believe the EU, and by extension Germany, are not doing enough – that Greece are, to a point, struggling in an intra-European mercantilist wrestling match.
On the football field, the memories of 2004 have not yet faded. Today, Greece are an underdog for the people. Then, for many, they were not. “I can’t rejoice in the Greek success because of the way it was achieved,” said one. Said another, “They stifle the opposition, wear them down and then try to score on the break, or from a set-piece. If everyone played like this, who would bother going to watch?”
This time, they appear to be doing very much the same, but we’re enthralled. The Greeks are explosively raw, and it makes for compelling viewing.
Writes Andrew Thomas, “Look at Karagounis after that penalty claim [against Russia] was rejected. He’s not just upset, or angry; he genuinely looks as though the world is crashing in on him. He crosses himself, frantically, again and again, eyes wheeling to the heavens, pleading with the Divine for forgiveness, or mercy, or something else incredibly important and necessary. This sense that it really, really matters is a dying (or maybe dead) one in club football, but at international level, it still turns up from time to time.”
The players are not so unenlightened as to ignore the political overtones of this match. They are aware of which result means what. From Georgios Samaras to Lars Bender, the men who will be watched by hundreds of millions understand that football offers an escape; an amnesty from another life. Greece’s achievements, so far, have provided something of a distraction from the disastrous economic situation, and they realise as much. It is a pity, then, that sport can be so remorseless. We must remember just how good the German juggernaut is.
"It is not a day for politics," said a representative of the Angela Merkel. "It is a day for sport." In Athens, young journalist Efthimia Efthimiou echoed this sentiment. "It’s important because we love football; when we beat Russia [in the Greeks’ previous match], the whole cafe I was in erupted on to the street. In fact, we love football too much to mix it with politics. We have enough politics here; for two hours, let’s just have football."
It is a wonderful ideal.
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