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At Euro 2012, Germany and Greece Face Off in Battle of the Eurozone

June 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When mighty Germany meets debt-ridden Greece in soccer's European championship quarterfinal on Friday, it will be hard to ignore the symbolism through which many will view the match. Jeffrey Brown speaks with longtime soccer analyst Tommy Smyth about the mood ahead of the clash.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: European Union? Sure. But every four years, it’s nation against nation.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: The European Championship features some of the best soccer and best players in the world. This year, the tournament is being hosted jointly by Poland and the Ukraine.

And also, of course, this year, it comes against the backdrop of a continental crisis, tomorrow, a matchup with particular resonance, Germany, which completed a sweep of group competition by beating Denmark last Sunday, against Greece, which earned its place with an upset victory over Russia on Saturday.

Some are calling it the debt derby: on one side: Greece, mired in an economic crisis and forced to seek an international bailout, on the other, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will attend the game, has led the push for tough austerity measures by the Greeks.

Germany, a powerhouse on the field, as well as economically, is favored to win. But Greek fans hope their team’s defense could give the underdog a victory to savor.

Some insight into the games and the stakes now from Tommy Smyth, longtime soccer analyst for ESPN, who also appears on its nightly Web show “Press Pass.”

So, Tommy, for an American audience, explain how big a deal this is in Europe as a matter of national pride.

TOMMY SMYTH, ESPN: Well, you know, Jeff, when nations come together on the soccer field, the temperatures run very high.

Keep in mind this is a tournament, 16 European nations, many of them very, very close neighbors. And you also know what happens when neighbors come together. But these neighbors are tied together in many ways, but they are so far apart politically. I don’t think that I have ever come across a tournament where the tension has been so high off the field.

I mean, it’s one thing to lose to a nation because you have a sporting rivalry with it, but to lose to the nation that you have political differences with, it is absolutely shattering for the fans. And this has just been incredible to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have never seen it before, even though these countries come in with a lot of history, right? Some of them have been at war. They have a history of wars. They have a history of all kinds of problems. But there’s a particular tone to this one?

TOMMY SMYTH: Yes, I think because, you know, if you look back to the Second World War, and you can say, yes, Russia, Poland, Germany, and Greece, they all have a lot of differences, and, you know, but that kind of slips in your mind a little bit.

But this time, because of the crisis that’s in Europe, you can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere. I mean, you can be a player in this tournament, and even if you don’t want to think about World War II, you have to think about what’s happening in your country.

I mean, Samaras, the Greek player, has said, I want to do something big tomorrow. I want to do something that is going to make my nation smile.

So you can tell that the players are so aware of what’s happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit more about that particular match, Greece and Germany.

You have got the most troubled nation. You have got the strongest one. You have got one of the poorest and certainly the richest one. How much does that play into what’s going on?

TOMMY SMYTH: Well, obviously, a Merkel is going to attend the game tomorrow, so that’s going to give the Greek fans a real chance to voice their opinion. In fact, I’m being told that Greece television is being asked to keep the nat sound down early in the game, because they’re afraid that the Greek fans are going to drown out the German national anthem.

Here you have — basically, you have a situation where you have the Greeks who can knock the Germans out of the Euros, and the Germans are the ones that are keeping the Greeks in the euro. So the politics are there. The football is there. And, I mean, this would be a fantastic victory for Greece.

They go into this as big underdogs. But remember in 2004 — and strangely enough, at that time, they had a German manager — they managed to win the Euros. They were 150-1 when the tournament started. Their odds won’t be quite as long tomorrow, but this is a big, big ask for them. Germany are big favorites going into this.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have been looking at various newspapers around Europe. And there’s sort of jokes and puns everywhere about, Greece will never exit the Euro, one Greek paper said. And they didn’t mean the currency. They meant the competition.

TOMMY SMYTH: Yes, well, I would say that, you know, going into last week’s elections, in Greece, people were saying, how long will Greece be in the euro, but didn’t really expect Greece to be in the Euros as long as they are.

So I think the fact that Greece is still in the euro and Greece is still in the Euros is absolutely a victory for the world, not just for Greece.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — sort of joking aside here, how much rides on this? I was watching — I happened to be watching the game last Saturday when Greece beat Russia.

And I thought, well, they’re voting tomorrow. That was the day before their election. And I wondered, how much does a match like that play into a national psyche as they go to the polls? What do you think?

TOMMY SMYTH: Well, I think the fact that the Greeks were in good form, because they had won, I think it probably helped them in the election.

You know, if you’re a happy voter, you generally vote in a good manner, and I think that’s what we have seen with the Greeks. But I guarantee you that, in Greece tomorrow or in Germany tomorrow, you could rob stores and nobody would even see you because the country will come to a standstill while this game is on.

(LAUGHTER)

TOMMY SMYTH: There will be nobody on the streets.

It was the same in Ireland, and we didn’t get very good results. But what happens within a nation — it’s very difficult for Americans to understand it because it doesn’t happen here — but in these kind of sporting situations, the nation comes to an absolute standstill.

It will be bedlam in both cases tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, last minute, Tommy. You said Germany is the heavy favorite. Who do you think is going to win?

TOMMY SMYTH: Yes, I think the Germans are going to win.

You know, Lothar Matthaus said, you know, soccer is a game you play for 90 minutes, you look up at the scoreboard, and the Germans have won.

(LAUGHTER)

TOMMY SMYTH: And I think that’s the way it is going to be tomorrow, too. I think the Germans are going to win this one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for the whole thing? You want to go out on a limb for the whole tournament?

TOMMY SMYTH: Yes. Well, I’m already on record with ESPN saying that Germany will win the whole tournament. They were my favorites coming in. I haven’t seen anything to change my mind.

And if you’re watching the game tomorrow, watch for a man called Schweinsteiger. He is one the players who dominates a game, fantastic player for Germany. And if you just have an interest in the game, watch for Schweinsteiger, and you will see something very special.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the German powerhouse on and off the field.

Tommy Smyth of ESPN, thanks so much.

TOMMY SMYTH: Thank you very much.