Pitched Battle

06.22.12

Soccer Diplomacy: Merkel, Greece Near Critical Final Round on Debt

As Germany toppled the Greeks in a European Cup grudge match, it remained unclear if any kind of teamwork would emerge to save the euro zone’s weakest members from deeper despair.

By the time the last, long minutes of the quarterfinals of the European soccer championship ticked by Friday night, it was more than apparent that the spread between the German and Greek national soccer teams nearly matched that of their disparate economies. For days leading up to the match, played in Warsaw, headlines in the two nations underscored the obvious—that this was not just about soccer. It was a grudge match; a matter of pride for Greeks, who had narrowly escaped a “Grexit” from the euro zone during national elections last weekend. Across Europe, the showdown was dubbed the “Bailout Cup” and “Debt Derby.” Athenian sports paper Sport Day topped their front page with “Bankrupt Them” on Friday morning. Berlin’s Bild was less subtle with a cringe-worthy “This Time We Can’t Save You.”

To be fair, the match was never in Greece’s favor. Germany won 4-2 on pure finesse. They have been favored to win the European Championships after a string of stellar performances on the pitch.  But a miracle—like a Greek underdog win—would have somehow seemed even more poignant in this particular moment in history, when Greece is clinging to its European Union membership thanks only to Germany’s patience. A recent poll in Germany showed that nearly half of Germans want Greece out of the euro zone. A similar poll in Greece showed that 78 percent of Greeks held an “unfavorable” opinion of Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in a VIP box for the match, wearing the same olive green linen blazer she wore hours earlier at a four-way economic summit in Rome between Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. Merkel left the Rome summit early to attend the quarterfinals, and television cameras captured her raising triumphant double fists of celebration each time Germany scored. But the irony of Greece’s first goal was lost on no one. It was scored by striker Giorgos Samaras, who is not related, but who shares the same last name as Greece’s newly elected prime minister, Antonis Samaras. Hoping for soccer diplomacy, the athletic Samaras told reporters ahead of the match that Greece would play to win “for 11 million people who are hoping for us to do something worthwhile, so that they can get out in the streets to celebrate.”

In the end, there was little reason for Greeks to rejoice. They will head home empty-handed while Germany advances to the glorious semifinals. The outcome of the Rome summit was not entirely different. The four leaders of Europe’s largest economies met in Rome to hash out details of a joint plan for growth and prosperity they hope to present in Brussels at a major European Commission meeting next week. After Friday’s mini-summit ended, there were very few concrete details about the outcome, but abundant rhetoric that the meetings were “useful.” On the eve of the Rome summit, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said that the leaders’ plans were “growth-based,” meaning they are focused on saving Italy and Spain from a similar fate that Greece is facing.

Monti has called next week’s major summit “pivotal”  for the future of the euro. “The euro is here to stay, and we all mean it,” he said at a post-summit press conference. But in his somewhat-apologetic final statement, he was less convincing. “Growth can only have solid roots if there is fiscal discipline, but fiscal discipline can be maintained only if there is growth and job creation.”

Samaras told reporters ahead of the match that Greece would play to win “for 11 million people who are hoping for us to do something worthwhile, so that they can get out in the streets to celebrate.”

Friday’s summit in Rome lured a handful of violent protesters, who burned a German-owned Deutsche Bank façade and built a symbolic wall of concrete in front of a Deutsche Bank automatic teller machine.  Windows were broken on German businesses and small fires were set in a square in central Rome. On Friday evening, French President François Hollande held a swishy cocktail party for French residents living in Rome under heavy police protection.

Greek Prime Minister Samaras missed Friday’s match against Germany because he was in the hospital, recovering from surgery to correct a detached retina. But he is expected to attend next week’s Brussels meeting to outline the country’s last-ditch efforts for a way out of their debilitating economic crisis. Samaras is hoping Germany will agree with other European nations to allow Greece some leniency on the finer points of their twin bailout deals. But Merkel has hinted that she won’t risk the euro’s strength for the sake of the zone’s weakest links.  “We want to make clear that we’re going to do everything to fight for the euro,” she said at a press conference after the meeting, refusing to elaborate whether that meant a euro with Greece as part of the team.