KIEV (Reuters) - Germany are blazing a trail, leaving awed competitors in their wake. Greece are perilously close to the exit.
It could be the euro zone, but this is Euro 2012.
Even at Europe’s biggest international soccer tournament, it is hard to get away from the debt crisis afflicting some of the countries playing in the 16-nation competition.
Politicians from indebted countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal hope success on the pitch might - at least for a while - deflect attention from unemployment, homelessness and failing banks.
“I do not know how far we will go and what we can do but with our joy of playing football we want to give joy to Greeks,” said Giorgos Samaras, a forward with the national team.
Unfortunately for Samaras and Greece, the first week of the championship in Poland and Ukraine has done little to lift spirits and may have further depressed several proud footballing nations who have failed to raise their game on the pitch.
The Germans are on the verge of qualifying for the quarter-finals from the group stage after beating Portugal 1-0 and the Netherlands 2-1 with slick performances that showed many of the qualities that have made their economy Europe’s strongest.
Well organized and hard working, they are miserly in defense, efficient in midfield and productive in attack. Not surprisingly, the former champions are among the favourites.
By contrast, Greece’s displays in the 1-1 draw with Poland and the 2-1 defeat by the Czech Republic were at times chaotic.
They are on the brink of elimination from the contest days before an election on Sunday that could determine whether Greece quits the 17-nation euro zone because of its economic crisis, despite an international bailout.
Three goals conceded in two matches is not good enough. Having a player sent off against Poland for two fouls was perhaps unfortunate, but missing a penalty was profligate.
Ireland are also struggling on the pitch as well as off it following an international rescue last year.
They crashed to a 3-1 defeat against Croatia and, as they left for Poland, Irish fans made a splash by unfurling a flag mocking Merkel’s demand that Europe’s poor nations should do more to pull their weight: “Angela Merkel Thinks We’re At Work”.
Merkel may not have been amused but this was perhaps the point for a nation known for its quirky humor.
“There is a feel-good factor about the national team in Ireland. They will get behind their team and it will alleviate the current situation,” former Ireland player Ray Houghton said before the tournament started.
Spain and Italy battled their way to a disappointing 1-1 draw in their opening match, undermining their reputation as two of the world’s great footballing nations.
Spain won the tournament when it was last held four years ago, are among the favourites to win this time and are dominated by players from Barcelona, who are often hailed as the best and most attractive club side in the world.
But they played against Italy without a proven goalscorer - a sign of austerity going too far? - and Italy have long had a reputation for defensive play. Could the weight of expectations have got the better of them?
”I believe football has been a means of escape for the Spanish people,“ said Iker Casillas, Spain’s goalkeeper and captain. ”I don’t believe it puts extra pressure on us but what we will do is play the most dignified European Championship possible.
Outlining the qualities the team needs in the tournament, Casillas could have been talking about life in Spain after a housing bubble burst, private and national debt piled up, unemployment rose and the government applied austerity measures.
“Commitment, dedication, effort and comradeship - those are values that all the players here will have,” he said.
If Spain do not improve, the performances, tactics and team selection could come under almost as intense scrutiny as the country’s banks as they are audited to see how much they need to be recapitalized, or cleaned up.
Portugal, another of the euro zone strugglers, can at least take some pride from beating Denmark 3-2 in a pulsating match after a 1-0 defeat by the Germans in their opening game.
But Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player, has been misfiring in front of goal and Portugal are likely to make a mark at the tournament only if he comes good.
The tournament has also thrown up some interesting matches involving EU heavyweights.
England’s defensive display in the 1-1 draw against France was reminiscent of the spoiling tactics Britain, which does not use the euro, is sometimes accused of deploying in the 27-nation European Union to block deeper political integration in Europe.
The eventual winners at Euro 2012 will hope for increased productivity and a few upward ticks in economic growth because of the national “feel-good factor” that follows victory.
Economists say growth in Italy was slightly higher at the end of 2006 than had been forecast at the time it won the World Cup that year, although it would be hard say whether the nation’s footballers can take the plaudits for this.
The bad news for the eventual winners is that victory does not guarantee long-term economic benefits - as Greece, Italy and Spain can vouchsafe.
Spain succeeded Italy in 2010 as World Cup champions and won the European Championship in 2008. Greece were the surprise European champions in 2004.
Just look at them now.
Additional reporting by Iain Rogers, Philip O'Connor and Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Jon Boyle