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Germany manager Joachim Löw admirably attempted to avoid predictable speculations on the match his players will play tonight in Gdánsk against Greece. “It is just football”, he said. This is a match with nothing to share with politics”.
Good effort, but it did not work.
In light of the troubled situation and the uncertain future of Europe as a political entity, the clash between Germany and Greece – that is to say, the strongest and the weakest economy in the region – in the last 8 at Euro 2012 emerges as more than just a football game.
Possibly, the non-sports aspects are even far more appealing than the merely technical ones, assuming that tonight’s match is destined to be a one-way one looking at the respective line-ups.
Many bookmakers reckon the Germans will beat, if not even hammer, their opponents and the 3-0 victory is the most likely outcome. In all fairness, the statistics show how difficult is trying to controvert such beliefs. Germany are the only side who have won all matches in the group stage against highly respectable opponents such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal. Five goals scored and only two conceded is definitely an impressive score.
A very fluid offensive department, in which the three deep-lying forwards and the main striker are ceaselessly swapping their positions in the last 16 metres, can seriously threaten a defence which is seeking its balance after two dreadful performances. Moreover, Germany can rely on their team spirit, with seven players of the starting lineup coming from the same club, Bayern Munich.
Greece head coach Fernando Santos has to deal with two main absences – disqualified left back José Holebas and, more importantly, captain Giorgos Karagounis, who scored the goal which led the Greeks to the knockout stage. The back four comprised by Vasilis Torosidis, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Giorgos Tzavellas is about to face as many oustanding players such as Mario Gomez (pictured right), current leading scorer of the tournament, and the likes of Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski.
It is unlikely to figure out the Greek defenders to contain their opponents, tremendously pragmatic and concrete as traditional German football requires. The same doubts might interest the front line as well, considering the presence of a confident goalkeeper such as Manuel Neuer and the defenders who get on famously. Yet, there is still a possibility, although small, to see Greece prevailing.
The rearguard is seemingly benefitting the promotion of Mihalis Sifakis as a first choice between the posts following Kostas Chalkias’ injury during the match against Czech Republic. It might be regarded as a mere coincidence, yet the Aris Thessaloniki goalie is unbeaten and played a main role in the key victory over Russia.
More importantly, what has happened in the last couple years may emerge as a decisive factor in realising what would be the ultimate upset in European football. The crisis which has been affecting Greece is encouraging the players to literally fight onto the pitch, to win for their fellow countrymen and give them a temporary relief from a painful situation. It is not hard to understand the feelings of both footballers and fans towards this special encounter, accompanied with funny tweets imagining Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose Greece how many goals they should concede, or the two-goal advantage to award Germany before the kick-off.
It was in 2010 that the Greek financial crisis broke, jeopardising the future of the European Union. It was clear that the supranational entity itself, alongside the Central European Bank and the International Monetary Fund, had to solve the debt throughout a massive loan to the Greek state.
Among the European countries, Germany played the leading role in terms of money and many Germans claimed not to be keen to pay taxes because of Greece. On their part, the streets of Athens started to host demonstrations of civil servants as well as private employees against frozen salaries and rises in taxes.
Senior MPs Josef Schlarmann and Marco Wanderwitz, perhaps not facetiously, suggested Greece to sell some of their islands in order to turn around their accounts. Furthermore, German magazine Focus published on its front page a picture of the Venus raising the middle finger and the reply from Athens was a photo of the statue on the top of the Victory Column waving a swastika. Then-prime minister Giorgos Papandreous, son of Andreas and nephew of Giorgos, two other notable leaders of the Government, endeavoured to reassure the rest of Europe about the capability of Greece to discharge its duties. But the two countries cannot exactly say they love each other.
When Greece overcame Russia last Saturday and were guaranteed a place in the last 8, the match against Germany turned out as a really concrete hypothesis. The tension increased as the day after re-elections took place in Greece and the political parties against the austerity measures were among the favourites. In the end, the centre-right conservatives of Nea Demokratia led by Antonis Samaras, a pro-bailout party, won, although tightly, and this has apparently prevented the scenario of Greece quitting the euro zone.
The relationships between Athens and Berlin are still tense, though. And another Samaras, Celtic striker Giorgos, may become the real bogey man for Germany, at least from a footballing perspective. After two disappointing displays, the Crete-born giant was believed to have made the difference for Greece to defeat Russia.
Curiously, he will be one of the leading figures together with centre back Kyriakos Papadopoulos and strikers Kostas Fortounis and Theofanis Gekas, who have played or are still playing in German Bundesliga. Not secondarily, Greece won their first and only European title thanks to a German coach, grumpy and utilitarian Otto Rehhagel.
Speaking about that totally unforeseeable triumph, the Greeks found themselves in the awkward position of finding a new accommodation as they booked the hotel for just the group stage, as none of them could just conceive the idea of winning the tournament. Fortunately, they occupied the rooms left by Spain, who on the contrary were surprisingly eliminated just after three matches. Nowadays, midfielder Yannis Maniatis has planned his marriage on 1 July – that is to say, the day of the final match in Kiev. “I’m sure he won’t get married on that day”, team-mate Kostas Katsouranis maintained.