They knew that the odds were stacked against them, but the fans gathered around the giant screen at the Osonoupo taverna in the central Athens neighborhood of Kaisariani yearned for their team’s victory. They needed a reason to celebrate.
“It’s just supposed to be football, and everything outside those white lines of the field — the bailout, austerity, politics — shouldn’t matter,” said Yiannis Mouzakis, 38, an economic content specialist at a media company. “But, I have to admit, the best five minutes of the last two years was when we scored that goal.”
The entire taverna leapt up in joy when, after being utterly dominated by a superior German side, the Greeks equalized just after halftime. People clapped and chanted “Ellas!”—or “Hellas”, Greece. Kids lit firecrackers and ran up and down the square. The waiters, garbed in the national team’s blue-and-white shirts put down their plates of fried calamari and tomato-and-feta salads and hugged each other.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Germany scored four times, winning the game eventually 4-2. The crowd at the taverna looked glum as the giant TV flashed images of a cheering Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. A few booed. “Stop showing her!” screamed a young boy wrapped in the Greek flag, his face painted blue and white. “STOP!”
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At a time when the eurozone is in danger of fracturing along north-south lines, the symbolism was heavy. Germany is the northern shark, the biggest economy in Europe and its leading powerbroker. Greece is the southern minnow, the troubled country on the verge of bankruptcy and political chaos. “I’d like to think that in the Europe of today, there isn’t a Germany and a Greece, but just a diverse continent united by the European Union,” said Antonis Nomikos, a 58-year-old notary public who predicted the loss on Thursday night, as he nursed a bottle of tsipouro with friends at a traditional cafeteria. But he laughed just after the words came out of his mouth. “It’s a silly dream, I suppose. Germany is the country that tells Greece what to do. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s simply the way it is.”
International lenders are keeping Greece solvent through billions in bailout loans that come with very harsh austerity measures. Greeks strongly oppose the measures, which include wage and pension cuts and tax hikes. Austerity has dragged the Greek economy into a fifth year of recession, and economists expect the economy to contract for a sixth year. Unemployment is at 22.6 percent, tens of thousands of businesses have closed, and homelessness and suicide rates are both on the rise.
Still, Germany, which has lent Greece most of the money, has insisted that Greeks must stick to the austerity regime to keep getting aid.
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That’s caused resentment on both sides. The German press has often depicted the Greeks as hopeless loafers, with tabloids and populist politicians suggesting that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay off its debt. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble has likened Greece to a “bottomless pit” for German taxpayer money. The tabloid Greek press, meanwhile, has run cartoons showing Merkel in Nazi garb. In the snap parliamentary elections on May 6 and June 17, anti-bailout politicians often referred to Greece being subjugated by “German jackboots,” a metaphor for Nazi massacres of Greeks during World War II.
At a central Athens park the night before the match, Dimitris Naziris, a 21-year-old history student at the University of Athens, said that “politics and football shouldn’t mix.” But he cracked a smile when a friend made a reference to “defeating the German warlords.”
But that same friend, Giorgos Tagaris, also knew that the Greek national team was not as talented as the German one. The Germans rank among the favorites to win the European championship this year; their squad boasts some of the leading lights of the international game. Germany was the only side to win all of its games in the group stages of the tournament and has scored in 19 consecutive games before today’s match.
The Greek team, by comparison, lacks world-class players, relying on stars in the middling Greek league and middle-of-the-road teams abroad. Still the team has exceeded expectations by qualifying for most major tournaments over the last decade. It shocked the soccer world — and sent Greece into a frenzy — when it won the European championships in 2004, defeating Portugal. Overjoyed Greeks poured into the streets of Athens that year, partying late into the night.
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Efi Efthimiou, a financial journalist who was at Osonoupo taverna on Friday night, wanted to experience that joy again. “If we had won, we would have been dancing on the tables,” she sighed.
Indeed, luck did not seem to be with the Greeks. Merkel traveled to Gdansk for the match, looking confident and happy. Meanwhile, the new Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who was just sworn in on Wednesday, was preparing for surgery on Saturday because of a detached retina. Samaras’s new finance minister, banker Vassilis Rapanos, fainted on Friday and has been hospitalized for stomach pains.
The bad news — in Gdansk and at home — seemed to remind Greeks of how Sisyphean the task of reviving their country, both economically and spiritually has often seemed in the last two years. But as Argyro Nikoglou, the owner of Osonoupo taverna, swept up her restaurant before closing, she found a reason to be happy. Even though Greece lost the match, she had her best day of business in three years. “We’ve seen an 80% drop in the last few months, and we have to pay ridiculously high taxes because of austerity,” she says. “But tonight, it reminded me of old times, before the crisis. And even though we lost, people stayed up until late in the night and lingered in each other’s company. I’m going to take that as a tiny sign of hope.”