Tomorrow night sees the latest instalment of an increasingly fraught story of two nations who seem to be on divergent paths. Representatives of Germany and Greece meet on neutral territory to try to establish what direction Europe is heading in. At stake is more than mere national pride – the repercussions of the outcome will be felt globally.
For the Germans the attendance of chancellor Angela Merkel will be welcome – they have an excellent record of making serious progress when she attends such meetings in person.
The Greeks by contrast will be without their newly appointed prime minister, Antonis Samaras, who understandably remains in Athens, preoccupied with pressing problems on the home front.
Merkel is something of a bête noire for the Greek public, who take issue with what they perceive as German-driven austerity measures that she insisted upon as the necessary accompaniment to the bailout their nation received.
For many Germans, Greece is an albatross around the neck, an ailing relative draining money from the collective continental coffers as well as good will from the whole grand European project.
But this seismic event is not being played out in the corridors of power in Brussels. Far from it: it is taking place in that most divisive and furious theatre of diplomacy and nation-building: the sports field.
For these two rivals face off tomorrow in Gdansk, in the quarter-finals of the European Championships, the quadrennial tear-up that confers the title of the Continent’s pre-eminent football force.
In recent months the fate of the Eurozone has seemed inextricably bound up in the dynamic between these two countries. And this pitch in Poland offers a compelling stage on which the latest round will be played out.
Will the enviably well-resourced Germany manage to prevail against the underdog Greeks, a team short on skill but long on hard graft and camaraderie? And what of the national stereotype of Teutonic reliability? Since the days of their legendary captain and later manager Franz Beckenbauer, nicknamed Der Kaiser, the Germans have worn a suit of apparent impregnability. And their counterparts in the ministries of Berlin have seemed similarly impervious to the vagaries of the economic crisis.
Greek fortunes on the field have been limited, despite an astonishing foray onto the winners’ podium back in 2004. That success was met with so much optimism – much like that which surrounded the nation’s entrance into the single currency three years earlier. And perhaps like that other auspicious event, it has proved equally misleading. The Greeks, despite an admirable team spirit, have never really threatened to match their underdog overachievement.
So tomorrow’s battle promises so much: a microcosm of two nations at odds on a rectangle of well-manicured turf. In white, a titan of the game, well used to coming out on top and utterly unafraid of the challenges ahead. In blue, the upstarts, written off before they get started.
The winners will continue on the road to the final. The losers will limp away to lick their wounds and ponder what might have been.
Quite what we should read into the outcome is unclear. But if Greece pulls off another astonishing upset, perhaps Prime Minister Samaras should consider a call to Frau Merkel. Now Angela, about those austerity targets…