Do politics and sport intersect? Greece’s miraculous defeat of Russia in Euro 2012 on Saturday night offers one of the most interesting test cases in years.
Greeks haven’t had much to cheer for lately. Their economy is in free fall. Their future in the eurozone is in doubt. Talk of hoarding food, gasoline and cash is rampant.
At times like this, soccer would seem like a distraction. Instead, on Saturday night, Greece’s national team captivated the country — and the continent — by pulling off a 1-0 upset victory against the mighty Russians.
The nail-biting win means Greece will advance to the quarterfinal round of the tournament in Poland and Ukraine later this coming week — a stunning outcome for a team and a country widely dismissed as at best second-tier in one of the world’s premier soccer competitions.
Russia, meanwhile, will go home.
The victory ignited celebrations throughout central Athens. Joyous Greeks poured into the streets, some toting the country’s blue-and-white flag.
Hours later, Greeks will be filing into voting booths in a national election that many experts say could determine the fate of the 17-country eurozone. The question is whether the national victory on the soccer pitch will sway the too-close-to-call elections.
It wouldn’t be the first time that an international sporting event had outsized political repercussions. In February 1980, the US hockey team stunned a much-favored Soviet Union to win gold in the Lake Placid, N.Y., Olympics. That victory — later dubbed the "Miracle on Ice" — came to be regarded as a Cold War turning point.
It’s not clear how Greece’s surprise win on Saturday will play in the Sunday ballot.
In an Athens bar on Saturday night, reveling Greeks were divided when asked about the likely electoral impact of their team’s win against the favored Russian squad.
Some thought it would help Syriza, the far-left conglomeration of underdogs that has pitched itself as the fresh-start party of hope.
Others argued that the win in a pan-European tournament could lend credence to the New Democracy party, which emphasizes Greece’s place in the European family.
Either way, Saturday’s upset sets the stage for a match next week that will be dripping in political symbolism. Greece appears likely to face off against Germany in the tournament’s quarterfinal round. In the epic drama that is the eurozone crisis, Greece for the past three years has played the role of nettlesome child. Germany has been the unforgiving parent.