Germany v Greece: fans and players try to put politics aside in Euro 2012 clash Angela Merkel can expect a noisy reception in Gdansk but both sides want to forget the eurozone crisis and focus on football
Greek fans at Euro 2012. 'We’re playing for the country, for 11 million people waiting for a smile,' said the Greek striker Georgios Samaras. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Football is no stranger to face-offs that reach beyond the pitch. England v Argentina in the post-Falklands 1986 World Cup was one, Iran v "the Great Satan" USA in 1998 another. West Germany v East Germany in 1974 was fun at the time.
And on Friday at Euro 2012 comes debt-crippled Greece, in its fifth year of recession and with a third of the population living below the poverty line, against the mighty Germany, its biggest creditor and the country many Greeks blame for the severity of the austerity measures they are now enduring.
At such times there may not be too many on the streets of Athens going so far as to echo Bill Shankly's legendary words: "Football's not a matter of life and death … it's more important than that." But for some the encounter in Gdansk has been elevated to a level above mere sport since the moment the teams booked their quarter-final places.
The Greek media have been in overdrive. The Sports Day newspaper urged "Bring it on"; a sports website declared "Greece will never exit the Euro" (pun intended); another howled "Get us Merkel now". They will have that wish, after the German chancellor announced she would attend the match. "It will be a good sporting event, and I hope that it will be a very fair sporting event," she told reporters in Berlin.
The 20,000 German fans expected to make the trip to Poland will give her a warm welcome.
The Greeks, however, will prepare a rather different reception. It was reported that the Greek tourist board had asked TV networks to keep the crowd volume low amid fears Greek fans in the stadium would drown out the German national anthem with jeers.
"Greeks want revenge," Berliner Morgenpost said. "Friday's match is more than a game for them. They want a night when big Germany will suffer." Germany's bestselling paper, Bild, which has handed out drachmas in Athens and urged Greece to sell an island to help pay off its debt, trumpeted: "For 90 minutes it will be about more than just football. The euro crisis will be playing too. Rejoice, dear Greeks, defeat will be for free on Friday! No bailout will help you against [the German team's coach] Joachim Löw!"
Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who led the Greek side to a surprise victory at Euro 2004 and says "part of my heart is still Greek", added to the piquancy by declaring that when "Greeks have faith, they fear no one. Success is good for the Greek soul."
The Greek team, lampooned in cartoons in the foreign press including one showing them in a kit sporting a German eagle, as if sponsored by Germany, were more circumspect. The striker Georgios Samaras (unrelated to the new prime minister, Antonis) said people "cannot mix football and politics, simple as that. It's a game. We'll play."
But they acknowledge its special context. "We're playing for the country, for 11 million people waiting for a smile," Samaras said. The midfielder Giannis Maniatis said the objective was to "give some happiness to the Greek people, make them celebrate in the street, given everything that's going on".
Germany's squad diplomatically stuck to football. "We won't underestimate them," the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. "The Greeks could hurt us too." Löw hailed the Greek team – can there be higher praise from a German? – as "masters of efficiency".
Perhaps surprisingly, many fans are reluctant to make more of this than a contest for a semi-final place. There will almost certainly be some chanting in the stadium, and perhaps a pointed banner or two. But most supporters seem reasonable.
"It's not rocket science," said Christos Pitenis, a civil engineer from Thessaloniki. "We play football, the Greeks win, the Germans drink beer. Or, we play football, the Germans win, we drink beer. Do I resent them for what's happening? Look, I worked with Germans for three years. They were excellent at what they did. Why would I resent them?"
Efthimia Efthimiou, a young Athenian, said it would be no different from playing Spain or Italy: "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."
In Berlin, Achim Fersen said he thought Germany would "probably win, but let's let football be football and politics be politics". Paulin Pintsch said he feared there would be "a few angry Greeks, and some Germans who think the Greeks don't pay their taxes and we're paying for it. So I can imagine there will be tensions." But he doubted there would be serious problems.
One man with a deeper understanding of the match's import is Akrivos Tsolakis, 81, a retired pilot and passionate Greek football fan whose mother was German. "From time to time," he confessed, "I do feel a little bit German. But on this occasion, I'm 100% Greek."
Alas, said Tsolakis: "The Germans are the Germans. A strong, disciplined team. It's hard to believe we'll beat them, but miracles do happen. There's no personal resentment; Greeks aren't like that. We can be angry, then set it aside. But a single football match can truly make a whole country happy, so it would be nice if we beat them. We haven't had a lot to smile about lately."