ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Chancellor Angela Merkel watched Germany weather the storm and emerge with flying colors, while other European countries simply floundered.
Only this time, it wasn’t a test of economic strength in the ailing eurozone. It was the first round of the European Championship _ a soccer extravaganza lasting 3 1/2 weeks that dishes out elation and disappointment to millions of people from the Irish Sea to the Chinese border.
Just as Germany has enjoyed growth while other eurozone economies have sunk into recession, its team has emerged unscathed from arguably the toughest group at the tournament after beating Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark.
However, Germany hasn’t been the only one to prosper at Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain may be struggling with waves of government austerity drives, high unemployment and either the prospect or the reality of embarrassing bailouts, but their soccer teams are doing just fine.
Among the 17-nation eurozone’s financially troubled nations, only Ireland was sent home this week after failing to reach the quarterfinals. But _ just as Irish people have received plaudits for coping so stoically with austerity, their hard-drinking, fun-loving fans have by far been the best of the tournament.
Important though the sporting stakes may be, the soccer gods have also proved to have a sense of humor.
Germany will be up against Greece in the quarterfinals in Gdansk, Poland _ the biggest contributor to the bailout funds playing against the nation that ignited Europe’s debt woes.
The irony wasn’t lost on the Berliner Kurier newspaper, which printed a cartoon Tuesday of a German government spokesman telling the media that “our stance on Greece remaining in the eurozone depends entirely upon how the quarterfinal goes.”
Germany’s Bild newspaper put it like this: “Be happy dear Greeks, the defeat on Friday is a gift. Against (German coach) Jogi Loew, no rescue fund will help you.”
Loew refused to be baited, laughingly telling reporters in Gdansk that the German team has a “close relationship” with Merkel.
“We’ve reached a deal in which she has no say in picking the lineup and tactics and we not in her political statements,” he joked.
Here’s a look at some key soccer results in the prism of the eurozone crisis:
GREECE 1, RUSSIA 0
For Greeks who have seen their living standards plummet in the debt crisis, their team’s unexpected win against Russia on Saturday night was as much about national validation as sporting prowess. Street celebrations in Athens saw Greeks wrapped in their flag, wearing replica helmets of ancient Greek warriors and waving spears.
“Greeks are portrayed as garbage abroad, but at least on the field we’re not,” said 29-year-old high school teacher Alexis Vasiliou.
Greece may be a debt-engulfed country that’s threatening to drag down the entire eurozone, but at least has a soccer team its people are proud of.
“The spectacle offers people an outlet, an escape to leave behind even for 90 minutes this flood of negativity from the crisis,” said Demetris Vestarchis, the owner of Mentor Cafe in the Athens suburb of Thission. “Most Greeks identify with these players who are showing that we’re not dead and gone.”
“What the politicians can’t do for this country, these players have,” said Yiannis Minasian, an unemployed 44-year-old. “These guys have heart and guts, something that politicians don’t have.”
ITALY 2, IRELAND 0
Italy scored a goal in each half to reach the quarterfinals but the mood on the streets of the Italian capital was as listless as its hurting economy.
Romans packing a pub near the Campo dei Fiori, a popular square, to follow the match on TV. Afterward, they glumly described the victory as a metaphor for the state of the nation, which is facing concerns it could be the next country after Spain to need an international bailout.
“Look around, do you see people celebrating? No, because although it is a victory, we can only partially feel it,” said Marco Cantelli, a 37-year-old banker.
“This team doesn’t even help to forget the crisis. Actually, it makes it worse,” said interior decorator Filippo Bich.
In Dublin, Irish fans walked out of pubs looking disillusioned after their Boys in Green bowed out of the tournament with three straight defeats. Some compared the ineptness of their athletes to the inability of their government leaders to negotiate better bailout terms.
“We’re outgunned on the football pitch and in Europe. We need a win to feel better about ourselves,” said Terry Rafferty, a retired Dublin bank manager.
PORTUGAL 2, DENMARK 1
In Porto, Portugal, fans jumped from bar stools in dismay when their team made mistakes Sunday night. But citizens of this tiny bailed-out country emerged elated and briefly forgot their deep economic misery with communal cries of “Golo!” each time the team scored and finally beat Denmark.
Flag-waving supporters clogged streets with their cars, honking horns as drivers and passengers yelled “Portugal!” over and over. However, fans said the mood was much more subdued than during Euro 2004, which was held in Portugal, when the country’s economy was charging ahead following its adoption of the euro.
After years of overspending, Portugal took a bailout last year and now has high unemployment, recession and harsh austerity measures imposed by creditors.
“We can have a break from the crisis of at least a month with Euro 2012, but I think both are coexisting, the cheerful mood and the crisis,” said Ricardo Teixeira, a 30-year-old doctor. “Our life is completely dominated by the crisis.”
Unemployed housekeeper Fatima Santos, 45, watched the game on large-screen TVs in Porto’s main plaza _ happy to forget her economic worries for a few hours.
“Right now with the crisis we do what is possible to enjoy life,” she said. “Being depressed isn’t worth it and giving up would be like dying.”
SPAIN 1, CROATIA 0
Spain’s late goal Monday night against a skillful Croatia generated whoops of joy in Madrid’s packed bars after a particularly depressing day. The country’s risk of needing an international bailout increased dramatically when its key bond interest rate hit an unsustainable rate of more than 7 percent _ a figure that had previously prompted Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts.
Fans said the win was redemption for a proud country and maybe _ just maybe _ a sign that Spain will emerge from its crushing financial chaos intact.
“Spain’s economy is against the ropes, but watching our team struggle, suffer and win against tough opposition inspires us to think that if you work hard you can overcome,” said Diego Escalante, a 28-year-old lawyer. “You can read a lot into this beautiful sport and translate it to life. Preparation and talent make up the base, and teamwork adds the cherry on top. Many Spaniards are talented, excellently prepared and educated to good levels. If we work together we will come through this.”
Sales executive Ramona Zulma, 37, said her country’s Euro 2012 performance showed that Spain is capable of achieving great things.
“Spain is not a backwater,” she said. “It is a country that has worked hard to get where it is, and it is so sad and depressing to see that for reasons that many of us barely understand we are now suffering economic difficulties.”
Rising reported from Berlin. Contributing to this report: Harold Heckle in Madrid, Ana Paiva in Porto, Paola Barisani in Rome, and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin.