Europe

Struggling Greeks hope for World Cup boost

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Image caption Greece v South Korea friendly: Greece (in white) remains a strong footballing nation

The World Cup is a welcome break for Greeks struggling and disillusioned after years of economic austerity.

As Anthee Carassava reports from Athens, there are hopes for some much-needed cash flow if Greece can progress in the tournament.

Eurikleia Kataki is not really a football fan, nor does she gamble. But with the World Cup under way, the burly, black-maned cook-cum-restaurant manager concedes she has a few euros riding on the Greek team.

"See this place?" the 36-year-old says, pointing to the forlorn, sparse-looking restaurant she works at, near the Acropolis.

"If business doesn't pick up and if customers do not starting pouring in, then I could be out of a job again.

"The World Cup is my last hope to get back on my feet. My entire livelihood is at stake."

Sounds a tad excessive? Hardly.

On the front line of Europe's debt crisis, Greeks have had to adopt painful reforms - deep spending cuts in return for the country's multi-billion-euro rescue packages from the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As a result, some of Europe's poorest citizens have seen their incomes plummet by 32%, the army of unemployed has grown to a staggering 27%, and the crisis has pushed up the suicide rate.

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Image caption Greek fans celebrate a goal against Romania in the World Cup qualifiers last year

High hopes

And then political instability continues to loom, with many despondent Greeks embracing either far-left ideologues promising to tear up the country's tough loan agreements, or far-right movements like the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party.

"There's not a lot to celebrate," Ms Kataki says, dicing mounds of onions and green peppers at the Opos Palia restaurant.

"I'm doing everything to attract customers. I've lowered prices, rolled out more chairs on the pavement and installed three giant television screens to beam the games."

Greece boasts a stout defence that has kept the national squad in the top 10 of the world rankings for a decade.

The players have said they will hit the pitch hoping to lift their compatriots out of the doldrums of budget cuts. They are in a group with Colombia, Ivory Coast and Japan.

"We have always had a great atmosphere in the teams," said defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

"Everyone is proud to be playing for Greece and the prospect of reaching the second round would bring joy to people who are going through rough times."

Government officials vow the business of fixing Greece's broken economy will go on unabated throughout the four-and-a-half-weeks of the World Cup.

Yet in a nation obsessed with football, most Greeks are unlikely to be paying attention - rather they will be glued to their televisions.

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Image caption Athens restaurant and cafe owners hope for an extra summer boost from the World Cup

'Positive diversion'

"Whether a fan or not, there will be no escaping the World Cup," says Christos Sotirakopoulos, a leading sports commentator.

"For a month the tournament will offer some welcome respite and positive diversion from the misery here."

Indeed, from neighbourhood pizza and souvlaki joints to beer and beverages industries, cash-strapped companies are banking on the World Cup season, plus a winning Greece streak, for a quick injection of cash. And considerable sums are also said to be going to bookies in match bets.

But with the new state broadcaster, Nerit, showing the tournament nationwide, restaurant and cafe owners fear that most of Greece's poor may opt to stay home, boosting profits for food delivery franchises only.

Greece pulled off one of the most sensational football triumphs in history when it won the Euro 2004 championship.

But just a few years later, the economic crash hit the country's sports stars. Attendances at stadiums plummeted. National football clubs were left in financial distress. And like thousands of doctors, IT workers and engineers, top footballers fled the country, finding jobs abroad.

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Image caption An Athens art school mural tells locals that football will not relieve economic austerity

Defying hardship

In the span of just two months last year, Italy's Chievo Verona snapped up Greek left-back Nikos Spyropoulos, star midfielder Vasilis Torosidis joined Roma, and Greek young footballer of the year Panagiotis Lagos went to a Ukrainian team.

Major domestic teams like AEK Athens and Panathinaikos now contribute just one player to the national Greek team. In 2004, the two teams alone sent 10 players to the winning 23-man squad.

EU-IMF control over the Greek government's finances took a toll on sports infrastructure - training facilities crumbled, the leaky roof at the cavernous Olympic stadium remained unfixed and Greece's top athletes had to train around buckets on rainy days.

Yet Greece's national football team survived, as private banks and heavyweight corporations like Vodafone stepped in as sponsors. And they promised hefty bonuses to players for every win in Brazil.

"Whatever the outcome," says Ms Kataki, at the restaurant, "this respite won't spell relief.

"My mountain of bills to pay will still be there, after the football fiesta is over."

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