The gates of Warsaw’s fan zone officially opened a little after five o’clock on Thursday, and by 5:30 p.m. the area in front of the main stage had filled to capacity. Officials estimate that as many as 100,000 fans will pack the zone during Friday’s opening Poland match, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that number had been reached last night in the first two hours.
While there weren’t any soccer matches to watch, there was plenty to do. An Adidas corporate zone included a five-a-side field, complete with bleachers and artificial grass, where fans could watch mini-international matches all evening. Over on the main stage, several musical acts—Djs, live bands, an Australian choir—preformed from five o’clock until the gates closed at one. The music only stopped a handful of times: when the bands setup and struck their equipment; when the President of the Capital City of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, gave a brief speech; and for commercial breaks played on the big screen.
Yes, the fan zone experience is also a corporate experience. Not everyone’s happy about it either.
Nobody seems particularly happy with the stranglehold that Carlsberg, the tournament’s official beer, has on the fan zone. It’s expensive, Danish, and not as tasty as local brews. Beyond that, critics complain that the fan zones serve as (literal and figurative) tourist traps, siphoning money away from local businesses -- the very businesses that paid for the tournament with their tax dollars -- and into the accounts of FIFA/UEFA's major international corporate sponsors (all the usual suspects: McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, et al). Furthermore, they argue the whole idea of a designated, regulated fan zone only homogenizes an otherwise authentic travel experience.
But one fan’s feeling of inauthenticity is another fan’s idea of a safe, controlled viewing environment. (At the moment, safety is a big issue here in Warsaw, where citizens worry fights and general mayhem will ensue when the Russian supporters arrive next week). Beyond that, the communal viewing experience the fan zones provide is a big draw for tourists here. Much of the motivation associated with coming to an event like this has to do with bragging rights. With the fan zones, you can tell your buddies you were “there,” even if you weren’t actually at the game.
Maybe it’s the American in me; maybe I’m desensitized to the being bombarded with ads and the corporate invasion of public fun in general. At the end of the evening, I was more upset when the English singer Taio Cruz got on stage and proceeded to lip-sync his way through his little set -- shamefully, he didn’t even pretend to pretend -- than I was by the commercial breaks. When the ads came on, I did what I always do when ads come on: roll my eyes and find the bathroom. And in any case, it’s hard to get too indignant when the whole thing’s free.
The Polish fans I spoke with didn’t seem fazed by any of it. Perhaps they were too excited that the moment had finally arrived to stop and consider the pros and cons, or maybe they were tired of considering the pros and cons. After all, the entire affair has been part of the national discussion since UEFA declared Poland Euro 2012 host country in 2007.
Before the gates opened, fans outside the southeast entrance broke into a chant. For a second I wondered if they’d break down the barricade. When the gates finally did open, there was a near-stampede to get a good spot in front of the stage.
Before long, the DJ started to play, and when the beat dropped, all anyone wanted to do was dance.