On Tuesday, when I arrived, I got lost in Stalin’s Wedding Cake, the colossal, communist-era skyscraper in the heart of Warsaw.
The building -- an imposing, gray tower topped with a clock and a candle-like spire -- is the first thing you see when you exit the Centralna train station. Constructed in the 1950s in the style of Moscow’s Seven Sisters, it’s officially known as the Palace of Culture and Science and is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.
But despite its beauty, the people of Warsaw have mixed feelings about it. As the name implies, it’s the city’s cultural heartbeat -- housing three theaters, an indoor pool, and a cinema, among other things -- but it’s also an ever-present symbol of the country’s soviet past. This month, it takes on a different meaning altogether: the wedding cake is the centerpiece of Warsaw’s fan zone.
In exploring it, I got lost looking for the fan zone’s accreditation office. Every Euro 2012 host city has press offices near their fan zones: quiet places to work, access the internet, and drink free beverages. I needed to pick up my pass if I wanted access. It should have been easy to find. I asked for directions at an official fan zone information booth, but somehow, and hour later, I found myself inside the wedding cake, still without a press pass.
Together, the fan zone and the wedding cake -- an enormous expanse of purple tarp-covered barricades and gray stone -- take up more than a city block. (To the east, the edge of the fan zone actually extends into the middle of Marszałkowska Street, which is now closed to traffic.) To complicate matters, a new metro line is going in under Świętokrzyska Street, the fan zone’s northern border; the street looks more like an archaeological excavation than it does a major urban thoroughfare. The wedding cake makes for an impressive fan zone centerpiece, but it doesn’t facilitate easy access to the fan zone itself. There are maze-like corridors which wind their way to the building’s various entrances, but these same corridors don’t always double as fan zone entrances.
As I searched for the press office, I encountered numerous stewards, security guards and crew members (The fan zone has several large stages) all eager to give me directions, in English. At first I happily followed their advice. They all appeared confident as they pointed off in one direction or told me I was close, but I began to worry that they weren’t the knowledgeable guides I assumed they were as I wound my way deeper into the bowels of the wedding cake. There, I found an agent selling tickets to the tower’s observation deck. I asked him how to find the press office, and he told me what everyone else I’d asked should have told me all along: “I have no idea.”
In Warsaw, if you get lost, just look for the wedding cake. It’s a soccer fan’s most important reference point. If you get lost around the fan zone, however, you’re on your own.
Here in Germany, where my wife and I live, drugstores have recently begun to stock their point-of-sale racks with all manner of red, black and gold-colored items: face paint, Dr. Seuss-style hats, miniature flags. This past week saw flags hung in previously nondescript windows throughout the country. The German team is one of the favorites to win Euro 2012 -- a tournament they’ve already won more times than anyone else -- and the country is preparing to back Die Mannschaft.
It wasn’t long ago that such displays of national pride were taboo in Germany. This all changed during the 2006 World Cup, which marked the first time since World War II that Germans could display their national pride without worrying (too much) that the rest of the world would confuse it with a return to nationalism. Though it may seem second nature to U.S. fans to celebrate the USMNT, this was a big step forward in how German fans consume the sport.
In a recent column, Michael Cox commented that “One of the most fascinating aspects of football is how playing style differs across different regions.” He’s right. At no time is this truer than during international tournaments, when each team displays a little bit of its own culture in how it plays the game.
But that’s only half the story. The way in which different fans watch and consume the game is equally fascinating. Just as I look forward to watching what each team brings to the tournament, tactically, and how they react to one another on the field, it will be interesting to see how the different fans celebrate the tournament and react to the different political and social challenges that always emerge during a sporting event as charged and important as the Euro Cup.
How the Ukrainians and the Poles will respond to the BBC’s (and by extension, England’s) allegations of racism is the big story so far. But there are other stories, too. For Germany, attending a tournament hosted by Poland and Ukraine takes on additional political overtones due to the ever-present legacy of the Second World War. Not only did the Nazis exterminate 90% of Poland’s nearly 3.5 million Jews, but several Nazi death camps existed in Poland, including Auschwitz. How the Germans should respect the past and then paint their faces and cheer for a national team they’re rightly proud of is an issue the country has struggled to come to terms with for some time now.
Earlier this year, the German federation decided that the national team would visit Auschwitz to pay their respects to the victims of the holocaust. Whether or not they should visit altogether is an issue of fierce national debate and last Friday, when the moment finally arrived, only three members of the team actually participated.
As Der Spiegel reports, that was only the half of it:
[Former German striker Oliver] Bierhoff, in charge of public relations for the national team, had said in March that the squad would address the Holocaust during the tournament but had not decided in what form that would happen. "It can be a fireside chat or a lecture," he had said. Bierhoff used the German word "Kamingespräch" for fireside chat -- a reference to an informal discussion or briefing. Kamin means fireplace but can also mean chimney, which Graumann [The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany] said evoked the chimneys of Auschwitz.
He said the use of the word Kamingespräch showed "colossal insensitivity and tastelessness" and was unbearable given "that people in Auschwitz, my grandparents for example, were gassed, incinerated and sent up the chimney."
It’s never just a game, this thing we call soccer. It exists in a constant state of political, social and tactical flux. This next month will mean a great deal to a lot of people, and who kicks a ball in what net is only part of the story.
Now that squads are set and teams are in full preparations for their opening games, concerns about racism (and by extension safety) in Poland and the Ukraine have dominated the news. Many writers have already picked through the BBC’s Panorama segment -- the catalyst for this iteration of editorials and thought pieces about racism, the Beautiful Game’s giant, festering wound (If you haven’t already, do read Roger Bennett’s special report on the matter) -- and the BBC has succeeded in shining a bright light on the issue.
Here’s what I’m thinking as I prepare to leave for the tournament.
1. In reading my first post, you may have noticed that I’m not going to Ukraine. I made this decision months ago; it has everything to do with logistics and nothing to do with the Panorama segment or safety concerns. A glance at a map of Europe reveals that Ukraine is a big country, the third biggest in Europe, by area. It’s almost 120% the size of Poland, the continent’s tenth biggest country. Basically, I don’t want to spend too much time on a train.
2. Racism in soccer, and the fan experience in general, varies a great deal from country-to-country. The Panorama segment didn’t exactly paint a nuanced picture of how things work in Poland versus how they work in Ukraine and thus left itself open to criticism. After all, they’re different countries with different sociocultural histories and different languages. Imagine for a second how Mexicans and Americans would react if a half-hour European documentary on, say, obesity (a big problem on both sides of the Rio Grande) painted both countries with the same brush.
3. Don’t be fooled by how this issue varies from country-to-country. It’s a problem everywhere; this includes England just as it includes the rest of Europe. Not long ago, I was shocked at the number of bananas in and around Manuel Neuer’s goal during Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga-deciding 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund.
4) Don’t let Americans tell you it doesn’t happen in American soccer. Americans like to treat racism in soccer as a European problem, but that’s balderdash. It may manifest itself differently in the States, but don’t get it twisted.
Four years ago, I played center back for a Sunday league team in the US. In the second half of a playoff game, my center back partner got himself sent off for attacking an opposing player. The ref issued a red card to the other player as well, something our opponents considered unjust. For some reason, the other team had about 200 fans in attendance (we probably had 15, total). As I focused on reorganizing our defense, I began to hear some hooting from a corner of the field. The hooting gradually became louder and spread throughout our opponents’ fan base, and before long all 200-odd fans were screeching, scratching their armpits, and hopping from foot to foot. They directed their attack at our goalkeeper, the only black player in the entire league.
I remember it taking a long time for me to realize what was happening, and then I remember the look on our goalie's face. I remember wondering what to do, wondering when the ref would blow his whistle (he never did), or if the league organizer, who was in attendance, would call the police (he never did either). And I remember feeling scared, because if nobody was going to do anything about monkey chants, what would it take? Where was the line between civility and barbarism? It had apparently disappeared, and when that happens, there’s no barrier between threats of violence and violence itself (as the BBCs Panorama segment showed).
5) In Brett Forrest’s recent ESPN Magazine piece on gambling in soccer, he describes FIFA like this:
Like the NCAA, FIFA is set up as a nonprofit organization that oversees teams, institutions and various leagues but has limited power to police them. The organization pays no taxes, and it earns $1 billion in annual revenue. There is little incentive to look below the surface.
One could describe UEFA in similar terms. And while Forrest was writing about sports betting, soccer’s governing bodies don’t treat racism much differently. They treat these issues as somehow outside the sport, as external factors they need not focus on because they’re not their business.
But my experience in the Sunday league taught me that when a fan base reverts to attacking individual players -- and racist chants are attacks -- it’s cheating, in addition to being morally reprehensible. It’s impossible to compete when you or your teammates are being threatened by violence.
Racism, when it happens, isn’t something that is somehow separate from what’s taking place on the field. It directly impacts the proceedings. If soccer’s governing bodies don’t want to deal with it as a moral issue, perhaps they should view it as a sporting issue: ensuring fair competition is the business of the sport’s governing bodies.
UEFA’s official response to the BBC’s Panorama was to issue a statement, which contained, in part, the following: “Euro 2012 brings the spotlight on the host countries and clearly creates an opportunity to address and confront such societal issues.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I just wish UEFA would realize that it and the game’s integrity are under the spotlight as well.
A week from now, Poland will take on Greece in Euro 2012’s inaugural match and I’m already sleepless with excitement. Some of my favorite soccer-related memories are of watching the European Championships, and the 2004 tournament marks the point at which I transitioned from curious fan to hard-core soccer enthusiast. That summer, much to my mother’s chagrin, instead of getting up early to find a job, I got up early to watch soccer with friends, coffee in hand, morning after morning. The Henrik Larsson storyline from 2004 is one that still sticks with me: he came out of international retirement, at the request of Sweden’s Prime Minister, to breathe life into his team. It worked too. Sweden topped its group, and Larsson scored some incredible goals along the way.
But I’m not here to write about great moments in soccer history. I’m here to write about Euro 2012. I leave for Poland on the 5th, and over the next two weeks I’ll report from Warsaw (where Poland plays Greece and Russia), Gdansk (where Spain plays Italy) and Wroclaw (where Poland plays its final group match against the Czechs). I won’t be in the stands or in the press box, though. Enough writers and journalists will be in the stadiums already; you’ll be able to read match reports and tactical reviews until your eyes cross. I promise. My beat is different. I’ll be in the streets, in the Fan Zones, with the people.
According to UEFA, organized Fan Zones first featured in a major tournament during the 2006 World Cup, when German fans and traveling supporters packed the streets to drink beer and watch their boys on the big screens the tournament’s organizers set up throughout the country.
Fan Zones have featured in every major tournament since, transforming the Euros and World Cups from single-purpose tournaments into cultural occasions more akin to a music festival than a typical international sporting event. (Picture Coachella, but imagine people with flags in their hair instead of flowers.) In Warsaw, tournament organizers expect more than 20,000 supporters to turn up in the Fan Zone on days when matches are being played in other cities. On days with live matches in Warsaw, that number could max out at 100,000. And if Polish fans can get this worked up during a youth match, I can’t wait to see what they’ll do when the National Team takes the field on June 8th.
In this blog, I won’t concern myself with the experiences of the dignitaries and the VIPs sitting in the stands but rather with the travelers and regular folks who maybe can’t afford a ticket but nevertheless want to have a good time and support their team. I’ll write fan profiles and interview supporters. I’ll talk about tournament infrastructure and Poland’s preparedness. I’ll write about how to enjoy the spectacle on a budget—something I should have down to a science after a couple of days in country—and whether or not it’s worth it to travel to these major tournaments if you don’t have a match ticket. I’ll even attend some of the non-soccer activities when I can. I might even get out and sightsee or wander my way into some smaller towns.
UEFA and FIFA have worked hard over the last decade to make these tournaments more accessible to traveling supporters and enthusiastic neutral fans. I’m here to include you in the experience. On a more personal note, soccer and traveling are two of my deepest passions. In the past, I’ve written about soccer and travel separately, but this time—attending my first major tournament in a country I’ve never visited—I get to combine the two. It’s not every day a dream comes true. No wonder I can’t sleep.