It’s around four in the afternoon on Day Nine of Euro 2012. The sky over Wroclaw is full of white streaks that look more like airplane vapor trails than clouds. About four guys wearing red and white shirts are outside a café on Olawska Street. They’ve stopped to serenade a couple of young ladies. “Polska, bialo-czerwoni,” they sing. The women, also wearing red and white, respond in kind, singing the two-word song with their arms raised, heads back and eyes closed. Before long, more passersby stop to join the song.
I know what they’re saying but only in a literal sense. Bialo-czerwoni means red and white, but it carries significance beyond color alone. Whenever I ask a Polish fan to translate, he or she struggles to do so. English can’t do it justice. The meaning is too Polish. Polska, bialo-czerwoni describes the color and the people at once, as the same thing.
I also know why they’re singing—tonight the Polish team plays the Czech Republic and Poland must win to continue—but just as I don’t understand the fullness of the words, I don’t understand the full significance of why, outside of the game, today is such a big day for this country. It’s hard for me to put into perspective.
I ask a passing couple—Sylwia and Andrew—to help. Andrew is Canadian but Sylwia is Polish and they both stand for a moment, looking at each other, scratching their heads. They mention that Poland has to win tonight to move on, but I know it goes beyond the team. What about for the country? I ask.
“It’s not like anything we have back home,” Andrew tells me. “Can you imagine the Super Bowl with nations?”
No. I can’t.
Minutes later I talk to Mike, a recruitment consultant from Gdansk. “We’ve never won anything, really, you know? So this is a moment to take a step forward for us,” he tells me. Then he thinks about it a little more and says, “For the Polish people, this is the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”
Tonight, then, when the Polish team takes the field, the tournament will reach a sort of high point: the most important moment during the most important event in recent Polish history.
The fans here are ready. They’re smiling and singing. There’s a jazz band on stage but they’re chanting over the horns and the bassline.
I hope tomorrow I’ll hear them chanting too.