Players and coaches sought to play down the political meaning of a clash between Greece and Germany at Euro 2012 on Tuesday, as France, England and hosts Ukraine prepared to battle for the last two quarter-final places.
Germany coach Joachim Loew refused to be drawn into a political discussion of Friday’s match, which pitches the euro zone’s problem child against its rich northern paymaster and has turned minds to a deepening economic crisis.
Greek striker Giorgos Samaras laid into the international media at a news conference for turning a game of football into a political sideshow following elections in Greece at the weekend.
“It’s a bad thing for you to start to make stories and compare football and sports with politics,” he said. “It’s just a game. We’re going to play and enjoy it because we love it, nothing else.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a deeply unpopular figure in Greece for the tough austerity principles she has imposed on Athens in return for a $164.79-billion bailout deal that a new government is expected to seek to renegotiate.
Germany for its part says extra taxation and a far smaller public sector is vital if Greece is to learn to live within its means and not require more international handouts in future.
“Angela Merkel and us, we have a good relationship and an agreement that she does not advise me on the lineups and I do not advise her on political statements,” Loew told reporters.
“It is just a normal quarter-final game against Greece and nothing else,” Loew said.
European soccer’s major powers look set to dominate the final stages of Euro 2012 after Italy and Spain came through a testing evening on Monday to join Germany, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Greece in the last eight.
France and England lead the running to fill the final two last-eight places, although England must avoid defeat on Tuesday by hosts Ukraine who are sweating over the fitness of talisman Andriy Shevchenko.
Coach Oleg Blokhin on Monday rated Shevchenko, scorer of two goals in the win over Sweden and 48 in a decade in the national team, at 50-50 due to a recurring knee injury.
Blokhin has said all sorts of quirky things during the tournament, however, so England will not be fooled and will be lifted by the return of their own spearhead Wayne Rooney after suspension as they seek the point they need to advance.
The last time the teams met Ukraine ran out winners at home in a World Cup qualifier, so the prospect of victory is not too remote and will keep fans hopeful that at least one of the co-hosts will make the knockout stages after Poland’s failure.
Group D leaders France, on four points, face eliminated Sweden in Kiev knowing victory would probably hand them a quarter-final against Italy at the same venue.
In a tournament marked by concerns over racism, Croatia were the latest country to be fined by UEFA on Tuesday for their fans taunting Italy striker Mario Balotelli in last week’s 1-1 draw.
The Croats, whose fans have also been involved in violence outside stadiums at the tournament, were dumped out by Spain after a tight match in Gdansk on Monday.
“It is certainly a drastic fine for us. Unfortunately, the behaviour of a tiny group of people immensely tarnishes our reputation and inflicts a huge financial damage,” Zorislav Srebric, secretary-general of the Croatian Soccer Federation (HNS), told Reuters.
“It is difficult to deal with such individuals and we would need stronger preventive measures and a help from our supporters in isolating them.”