German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be shunning the European Football Championship to protest Ukraine's treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, but that didn't stop her from enjoying her national team's victory over the Netherlands on Wednesday night.
Merkel, who is known as a die-hard football fan, attended a viewing party with a number of other high-level politicians at the German state of Hesse's representation office in Berlin. "I don't care how it happens," she said just before the kickoff. "The main thing is that we win."
And win they did. The German national side put on a strong performance despite sweltering heat to beat their historic rivals 2:1 with two impressive goals by striker Mario Gomez. Their second group-stage victory brought the Germans a little closer to the quarter-finals and nudged the Netherlands to the edge of elimination in the tournament, which is being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
The chancellor declined to offer any tournament tips to German trainer Joachim "Jogi" Löw, who has coached the team for some six years. "When I am trusted in matters where I have to make decisions, then that's already a lot," she said. "And that's how I feel when it comes to Jogi Löw."
Merkel has often attended German national team games in the past, but controversy over Tymoshenko's treatment by Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine has prompted her to shun the tournament events held in the country in an apparent bid to increase pressure on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Although the chancellor has not ruled out attending some of the later Euro 2012 games in person, she has announced that for "scheduling reasons" she will not go to any of Germany's first-round games, which are all being held in Ukraine. The decision has been interpreted as a de facto boycott of Ukraine.
All 27 European Union commissioners, in addition to German President Joachim Gauck and a number of other European politicians, are also shunning matches in Ukraine while Tymoshenko remains in custody.
Protest in Kharkiv
But other German politicians took a different approach to protest at the Germany-Netherlands game in Kharkiv, the same city in which Tymoshenko is being held. Green Party European Union parliamentarians Rebecca Harms and Werner Schulz, along with some 50 other activists, unfurled protest banners at the match. Next to an image of a Ukrainian flag behind bars, one message read "Release all political prisoners," while the other said "Fair play in football and politics."
"We don't want to look away," said Schulz. "We want to support the people who have helped bring the European Championship to the country and now sit in prison while others bask in its glory."
According to Schulz, Yanukovych has suggested "dirty deals" in which he offered to release Tymoshenko in exchange for a chance for Ukrainian entry into the EU.
The match was held near the hospital where Tymoshenko is being held and treated for back problems, and on Wednesday her lawyer said she would be able to hear the roar of the crowd from her room.
Ahead of the game, her daughter Yevgenia Tymoshenko, who has been campaigning on her mother's behalf, told German daily Bild that fans should be mindful of where the tournament is being held.
"Fans must not forget that they are watching soccer matches in a country where political opponents like my mother are held in prison under brutal conditions," she said. "People should use the game in Kharkiv to send a clear message to Ukrainian President Yanukovych: We want freedom for all political prisoners!"
kla -- with wires
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