Greece found itself in a familiar position today — pinned under German boot heels — but this time the venue was a soccer field and not a eurozone boardroom. Germany’s national soccer team beat the Greeks handily, 4-2, in their quarter-final match at the European Championships in Gdansk, Poland, with Chancellor Angela Merkel whooping it up in the crowd after each of countrymen’s goals.
Newspapers around the world had spent the past four days chewing up the delicious storyline. “Rejoice, dear Greeks,” wrote Germany’s unrepentant Bild newspaper, “your bankruptcy on Friday is on us!”
“Bring us Merkel,” read a headline in Greece’s Goal News, “You will never get Greece out of the euro.”
Players from both sides downplayed the political angle, with Greek striker Georgios Samaras, who scored his side’s only goal from open play, calling the subplot “a bad thing.” He said his team was “going to play and enjoy it because we love it, nothing else.”
German manager Joachim Low sounded a similar note Tuesday: “Angela Merkel and the national teams are on very good terms,” he told reporters. “We have reached an agreement where she doesn’t interfere with my tactical instructions and, in return, I don’t deal with her political agenda.”
If only it were so simple. While it’s a bit much to say “soccer explains the world,” there should be little doubt the sport has a way of synthesizing the politics of the moment and calling up the pain of generations’ past. (Or, in the case of these two nations, providing a canvas for comedy legends.)
Here are a few to remember:
HOLLAND VS. GERMANY – HAMBURG, GERMANY – JUNE 21, 1988
West Germany beat Holland, 2-1, in the 1974 World Cup final. Some time later, Dutch midfielder Willem van Hanegem explained how he felt before kickoff.
“I didn’t give a damn as long as we humiliated them,” he said. “They murdered my father, sister and two brothers. I am full of angst. I hate them.”
Attitudes were changing by the time Euro ’88 rolled around. A new generation of Dutch players had stormed into the national team, and while the rivalry still turned nasty at times, the Holland team was slowly unburdening itself of the past generation’s psychic scars. As fate demanded, they were matched up with the Germans in the tournament’s semifinal, in Hamburg, and with a minute left to play found themselves level at one. Then, with a sweep of his regal right foot, Dutch striker Marco van Basten delivered the late winner, sending Holland to the final and host Germany to the turf, defeated in front of their own countrymen.
After the match, Holland’s Ronald Koeman approached Germany’s Olaf Thon, a quiet, clever little player — hardly the Teutonic tough so despised by the Dutch at the time — to swap shirts, as is customary after most international soccer matches. Thon obliged and probably thought little of it, until he and the rest of the world watched Koeman carry the shirt to a corner of the field where the Dutch fans were celebrating and use it wipe his bottom.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Koeman would say later, “but to say I regret it, no, not really.”
U.S.S.R. VS. CHILE – SANTIAGO, CHILE – NOVEMBER 21, 1973
The second leg of this World Cup qualifying playoff was world soccer’s most one-sided affair — and quite possibly its darkest day. The Soviets boycotted the match, scheduled to be played in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional de Chile, on human rights grounds. The stadium had in the weeks before become a holding pen for political prisoners, many of whom were executed on the field, after a Sept. 11 coup d’etat led by army chief Augusto Pinochet (with the backing of U.S. President Richard Nixon and the CIA).
Chile’s democratically elected socialist government had been overthrown and its president, Salvador Allende, killed in the bloody street fights that followed, but the Chileans insisted the game be played at the national stadium. When the U.S.S.R. refused, FIFA disqualified them and Chile had only to kick the ball into an empty net to win the game and seal their spot in West Germany ’74.
EL SALVADOR VS. HONDURAS – TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – JUNE 8, 1969
The two countries would play three World Cup qualifying matches in the span of 18 days in June, 1969, the first of them in the Honduran capital, where the home side won, 1-0, amid fighting in the streets. The root of the neighbors’ squabble, which eventually erupted into a full-scale war — “The Football War” — lay in a decision by the government in Honduras to unilaterally “take back” and redistribute all land held by Salvadoran immigrants. El Salvador called it a “genocide” and by the time teams had finished their tie-breaking match in Mexico City on June 26 (which El Salvador won, 3-2) the battle lines had been drawn. Less than three weeks later, troops from El Salvador crossed the border into Honduras.
ENGLAND VS. GERMANY – BERLIN, GERMANY – MAY 14, 1938
The politics of “appeasement” laid bare in Berlin. Two month’s after the Anschluss, England’s national team visited Hitler’s capital for an exhibition match with the Germans. England won by three goals and the game would have likely been forgotten to history except for what happened before the first touch of the ball: English players, led by captain Eddie Hapgood, lined up next to their opponents and raised their arms to deliver a fascist salute to the Olympic Stadium crowd.
“For a country which has shouldered a weight of footballing shame in its time,” the BBC’s Jonathan Duffy wrote in 2003, “[the salute] ranks as one of England’s darkest moments in the sport.”
RUSSIA VS. POLAND – WARSAW, POLAND – JUNE 12, 2012
Forty-four years behind the Soviet Iron Curtain left its mark on Poland, as did the “Katyn Massacre” of 1940, when Stalin’s soldiers slaughtered more than 20,000 Polish military officers and civilians.
All that fresh in mind, the two countries were drawn into the same Euro 2012 group and scheduled by UEFA, with its signature arrogance, to play their match on “Russia Day.” Armed thugs from both sides targeted opposition supporters on the streets of the capital before kickoff. Russian fans also managed to smuggle a massive banner declaring (in English, for maximum effect) “This Is Russia” into the stadium, a gesture that touched off another round of in-game chaos.
U.S. VS. IRAN – LYON, FRANCE – JUNE 21, 1998
If we’ve seen soccer at its very worst in Santiago and Warsaw, this match played fourteen years and one day ago in Lyon was “the beautiful game” living up to its lofty nickname. The relationship between the governments in Tehran and Washington was only slightly better than it is today, but that didn’t stop the Iranian players from presenting their opposite numbers with white roses before the match. Nor could anyone have anticipated the two teams would pose together for a pregame portrait.
Iran would defeat the forlorn American side, 2-1, but the game was brisk and sporting and the teams would schedule another match, a “friendly,” for a few months later in California. After the game, even as Iranian state media went on at a canter about having defeated “The Great Satan,” the players exchanged match jerseys and retired to their respective locker rooms. The only dissent was in the stands, and it was from Iranian ex-pats aimed at the Ayatollah Khamenei.
“We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” U.S. defender Jeff Agoos told reporters after game.