ATHENS/GDANSK (Reuters) - Germany humiliated Greece in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament on Friday, rubbing salt in the wounds of a nation reeling from a dire economic crisis which many blame on Berlin.
Greeks were aching for at least a measure of revenge against their euro zone tormentor in the needle match of the tournament’s quarter-finals, but it ended as yet another dashed dream with Germany rolling over their underdog rivals 4-2.
The euro zone paymaster gave what many Germans see as a profligate and lazy state yet another lesson, this time on the pitch - perhaps revenge for political headache after headache in a regional debt crisis unleashed by Athens in 2009 that now threatens the survival of the entire common European currency.
In restaurants and bars in Athens, a brief moment of hope when their team equalized with a stunning breakaway goal early in the second half caused ecstatic celebrations and the shouting of insults against Germany, which is widely blamed for the painful conditions of an international bailout.
“That’s how they screw you, those who owe you ... shove your loan,” the fans chanted.
But they were soon stunned into silence as Germany ran riot with three more goals to establish total domination despite a successful late Greek penalty at the match in the Polish coastal city of Gdansk.
Restaurants and bars in Athens emptied quickly after the match and the city was subdued.
Christos Zois, spokesman for the anti-German Independent Greeks party, said on Twitter: “For a few minutes, we dreamed we could renegotiate the bailout. But then we got it rammed down our throat.”
In viewing areas in Germany and at the match itself, German fans cheered Chancellor Angela Merkel as she celebrated her team’s goals from the stands. Nearly half a million fans reckoned to be watching the match on giant screens in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate chanted: “Knock Greece out, Knock Greece out.”
But Greeks yelled abuse at TV images of celebrations by Merkel. She is widely despised in the debt-laden country where a new government has just taken power vowing to soften the terms of the bailout despite steadfast opposition from Germany and other European powers.
“At least we went down with dignity. Celebrating as childishly as that, Merkel showed she has none,” said Pavlos Hatzipavlou, a chemist watching in Athens.
Greeks widely acknowledged the superiority of the powerful German team but were proud of their side and clapped when the game ended.
“The Germans were clearly the better team, but we fought as best we could,” said Maria Markopoulou on the streets of Athens.
Despite the sour atmosphere between the two nations, there were also voices of moderation. “It has nothing to do with politics, it’s just football,” said Lefteris Soultanis, 25, in a cafe in the ancient Thissio neighbourhood of Athens.
That sentiment was echoed among German fans in Berlin.
“It’s fantastic but embarrassing for the Greek team,” said student Josef Pfeister, 22.
“However, I think it is only sport, it has nothing to do with politics and the problem between Germany and Greece.”
In Gdansk, Greeks looked dejected as they left the spectacular amber-hued stadium. But there was a friendly atmosphere between the two nations’ fans who stopped to take photos together and patted each other on the back.
“This was an entertaining match with lots of goals and a great atmosphere. It was a fair game,” said German Joerg Himmler, 47. “Yes, there was all this hype beforehand, but I think all the fans from Greece and Germany and Poland helped make it a really warm, friendly occasion - a football festival.”
The match, played out in a once German city rebuilt in grand Hanseatic, gabled style from the ruins of World War Two, pitted two nations whose relations have rarely been so sour since that conflict - when Nazi troops occupied Greece.
Only a small number of Greeks made the expensive trip to Gdansk, in contrast to an estimated 30,000 Germans.
Media in both countries built up the tension before the match with spiteful and mocking cartoons and provocative headlines.
“Bye-bye Greeks, we can’t rescue you today!” the top-selling Bild proclaimed on its front page in Germany on Friday.
“Bankrupt THEM,” blared leading Greek paper Sport Day.
The respected daily Kathimerini underlined that the match was against a foe blamed for saddling Greece with a punitive austerity program that has led to chronic unemployment and years of deep economic recession.
“Whoever thinks today’s match is just a game is wrong,” the paper wrote, vowing it was “politics - maybe even war - by other means”.
“To many Greeks, victory will represent the triumph of the weak against the wealth, might and arrogance of the powerful,” it said. “If the Germans win, they’ll see it as confirmation of their diligence, strategy, talent and thrift.”
Merkel loves soccer and the German team. She asked for a four-nation euro zone summit in Rome on Friday to be brought forward so she could get to the game.
None of that endeared her any more to the Greeks.
“I only wish someone would buy my plane ticket,” said Theodosis Giannitsis, 65, who owns a small antique shop in Athens. “So I could go there and throw a yoghurt in her face.”
Additional reporting by Stephen Brown, Elisa Oddone and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin, Matt Robinson and Karolina Tagaris in Athens; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Alastair Macdonald