Published November 20, 2014
Greek soccer fans whistled and jeered at Angela Merkel, but the German chancellor had the last laugh, jumping to her feet in joy every time her team scored.
After a year in which the Greek economy imploded and Germany insisted on deep austerity measures in return for bailout funds, Greeks were yearning for a victory on the playing field. It would've restored some pride and allowed them to have the upper hand, even just for a day.
It wasn't meant to be. In their European Championship quarterfinal match Friday, as in the crisis-hit eurozone economy, German influence proved tough for Greece to overcome and the final score was 4-2.
One sign in the crowd at Arena Gdansk stadium summed up Germany's self-confidence on the soccer field: "You can have our billions — but not the trophy," with a picture of the European Championship cup.
Greeks watching the match on TV screens at a cafe in Athens had fleeting moments of jubilation, jumping out of their seats and knocking over glasses that smashed on the floor when their team scored to tie the match 1-1. Taxi drivers passing by honked their horns. The celebrations lasted only for a few more minutes, however, with Germany scoring three more goals. Images of Merkel celebrating Germany's goals drew loud derision from spectators at the cafe. For Germany's first, fans cursed at the screen when Merkel was shown cheering, while others made rude hand gestures.
In Berlin, soccer fans waving German flags flooded the area in front of the landmark Brandenburg Gate to watch the match. Organizers said about 400,000 people attended the public viewing event.
"The people were very nice here," said Greece fan Odin Linardatou of Athens, who was vacationing in Berlin. "People congratulated us when we scored a goal, and we congratulated them (when Germany scored)."
In Gdansk, some Greece fans believed their team was playing for — and won — a bigger game for the nation.
"We need more respect from the rest of Europe," said Dimitris Diavatis, a hotel owner on the Ionian island of Corfu, on leaving the stadium.
One week earlier, the embattled Greek people had less to hope for and, perhaps, a little more to fear.
Last Saturday, the Euro 2004 champions were expected to be eliminated from its group on the eve of a parliamentary election which threatened turmoil.
But Greece beat Russia 1-0 with a resolute defensive display. Then voters rejected candidates from the political extremes to elect others from the mainstream who, by midweek, formed a conservative-led coalition government prepared to accept the tough, German-backed conditions of staying in the eurozone.
Against this backdrop, sports and politics inevitably met on neutral Polish turf on Friday evening.
"Today we have no other choice," said Michalis Kalotrapesis, wearing a white national team shirt and tracksuit top, before the game. "We are playing for our country and for our image in Europe and all over the world."
Kalotrapesis, and three Greek friends who all now live in Germany, drove for nine hours through the night to support Greece, the spirited underdog.
Confident German fans could have planned ahead of Euro 2012 for a likely quarterfinal in Gdansk. Fans from the Greek Diaspora had just a few days.
"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, Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras, a Harvard-educated former finance minister, stayed in Athens to meet with lawmakers rather than Merkel.
Instead, his namesake, forward Giorgios Samaras, did the most to upset the German leader's evening, scoring the equalizer in the 55th minute. For six fleeting minutes, the shock was on until the balance of power was restored by back-to-back German goals.
Merkel was spared further public shows of Greek disapproval as the giant screens showed only shots of other Germans celebrating.
"I'm not saying I'm in love with her, but I didn't whistle," said Spiros Chalikiopoulos, a travel agent who traveled to Poland from Corfu. "We knew Germany is the best team but we are fighters."
In Germany, the best-selling daily Bild led the sports pages of Friday's edition with: "Bye bye Greece; we can't rescue you today."
Greece lost, but won the respect of Germany as a worthy opponent.
At the Brandenburg Gate, German fans were reminded of that when the broadcast by public network ZDF cut to the news at halftime.
Newsreader Marietta Slomka began the bulletin saying: "If the Greeks' financial situation was as solid as their defense, Europe would have a few less problems."
Associated Press writers David Rising, Juergen Baetz and Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.