BERLIN -- Their leaders are already at odds, their people full of mutual mistrust. Now, Germany and Greece get to duke it out on the playing field.
Friday night’s quarterfinal matchup between the two countries' teams in the Euro 2012 soccer championships has brought an intriguing political tint to a tournament that enthralls Europeans every two years as much as college basketball rivets Americans every March.
Politically, Germany and Greece are engaged in a high-stakes faceoff over the euro debt crisis, with Berlin insisting on severe austerity cuts in exchange for helping to bail out cash-strapped Greece ,and Athens rebelling against such harsh conditions.
Whether the strong mutual antagonism that has resulted spills onto the soccer pitch remains to be seen. But the jokes and acerbic comments are pouring in.
Will Germany have to give Greece an emergency loan of four players at halftime? Or if Greece wins, should the European Union knock 100 billion euros -- about $125 billion -- off Athens’ bailout repayment?
For Greece, reaching the quarterfinal has already been an unlikely national mood-lifter during tough times. The nation’s team pulled off a major 1-0 upset against Russia on Saturday, the day before Greek voters went to the polls in an election widely seen as a referendum on their membership in the Eurozone.
But the Greek team is a big underdog against Germany, a perennial powerhouse in European soccer. Although Greece won the same tournament in 2004, against big odds, the team has never beaten Germany, which has won the tournament three times.
Greece’s coach, Fernando Santos, agrees that his team is David to Germany’s Goliath. And Greeks who were already praying for a miracle for their moribund economy are now also doing so for their soccer team.
For Germans, such tournaments are one of the few occasions they can be uninhibitedly nationalist, draping their black, red and gold-striped flags from balconies and car windows.
But if Germany wins, as expected, how will it affect the tense relations with Greece? Will a smothering German victory further irritate Greeks who feel they are suffocating under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity measures?
Merkel requested that a meeting in Rome of leaders of the Eurozone’s four biggest economies be moved up Friday afternoon so that she could attend Friday night’s match in Gdansk, Poland.
Germany’s coach, Joachim Loew, isn’t underestimating his Hellenistic rivals.
“Playing Greece will be akin to colliding with a rock,” he said Thursday.
-- Paul Glader
Photo: Players from the Greek national soccer team practice in Poland on Thursday in anticipation of their quarterfinal match against Germany on Friday in the Euro 2012 tournament. Credit: Patrik Stollarz / Agence France-Press/Getty Images