July 4th, 2004. Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece.
It’s a happy time for Greece. The 2004 Athens Olympics are barely a month away. Helena Paparizou is mere months away from assuring all Europeans that they are her secret passion and that she has no other. Few people know about Greece’s heavy borrowing and growing deficit.
Indeed, on this warm, perfect Sunday, thousands of Greeks have gathered in central Syntagma Square not to protest, but to rejoice. Greece, defying 80-1 odds, have won the 2004 Euro Cup. Greeks, a younger version of myself included, have gathered to sing, dance, wear an inappropriately little amount of clothing, and, above all else, celebrate. Dora Bakoyannis, the much-celebrated mayor of Athens and future national New Democracy politician, encapsulates the feelings of all Greeks when she says,
this is a unique moment for all of Greece, it is indescribable
Indeed, indescribable. Try as I might, it is difficult to describe the feelings of that celebration without just using the words “unadulterated national joy” over and over again. There is something about that moment that all Greeks will remember: times were good and the soccer was even better. After all, as Bakoyannis said, this was a “unique moment.” For a country whose inhabitants believe that it invented math, democracy, and everything in between, this is quite the statement.
Perhaps the best analogue for the Greek sentiment following the 2004 Euro Cup is the 1986 Argentinian World Cup victory. Although the Argentinians, unlike the Greeks, were not underdogs, the similarities are striking, right down to the future inevitable but still unexpected financial crisis. The 1986 World Cup victory was highlighted by a 2-1 victory over England in the quarterfinal, only a few years after the Falklands War. The much-celebrated victory boosted Argentinian national consciousness to its highest peaks in the post-Falklands era.
During the financial crisis of the late 1990s and early 2000s and the tough times that followed, the soccer gods offered the Argentine nation a reprieve: a chance to beat England at the 2002 World Cup, reliving the glory of 1986 and making the hardship ahead a little bit easier to bear. Argentina lost 1-0. The result was, for obvious reasons, devastating to a nation looking to their soccer team for confidence at a time when their economy and politicians inspired none.
Later this afternoon (2:45 EST), Greece is playing Germany in the 2012 Euro Cup. For Germany, the match is an important test for an untested and new generation of players. For Greece, it is a David-versus-Goliath struggle for national pride against an opponent from a country whose leaders many Greeks feel embarrass them on a daily basis. One of these leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be in attendance.
For months, Greeks have searched for something, anything to give them hope as a nation in these troubling times. As the success of the far left Syriza and their invigorating young leader, Alexis Tsipras, suggests, Greeks are desperate for any shred of hope tossed their way. More tough times lie ahead for Greece. Even though it may not affect the actual policies, the mere national psychological benefit of a victory may be the Greek brandy to the German austerity medicine. A victory would remind Greeks of a time in which they were at their happiest and their most integrated with Europe—2004. The benefit of such a victory (and the damage of such a loss) for the psychological health of a country undergoing drastic socio-economic changes and tough political reforms can hardly be overstated. Just ask Argentina.
Update: Greece lost 4-2 to Germany. William can be found drowning his sorrows in tubs of moussaka…or on Twitter.