I spent a good portion of Thursday night on German public transportation. I took the train out to Ludwigshafen to meet my wife and her colleagues before the Germany versus Italy semifinal, and I took
the train back after the game. Such was the difference in atmosphere aboard the two trains that one could have missed the match entirely, not spoken to anybody in the meantime, then boarded the night train and immediately comprehended what had taken place.
The outbound train left Heidelberg at 5:15 p.m. local time. The commuters on board at this hour normally wear a familiar tired-yet-relieved look having just finished work, but this train wasn’t full of the work-weary; it was full of confident German soccer supporters who happened to have just gotten off work. Some of the men on board had already changed out of their dress shirts and into Die Mannschaft’s white and black strip. They still had their slacks and nice shoes on, however, and the two types of dress (formal, work-related; casual, football-related) created that strange incongruence we all know from seeing similarly dressed diplomats in the VIP boxes in stadiums around the world. Where the executives in luxury seats seem uncomfortable in trying to exist as both soccer fans and serious public figures, the guys aboard the commuter train just looked excited.
Obviously the atmosphere on the return train was different. All the enthusiasm from the early evening had dried up. Many of the passengers looked like they’d been drinking all evening; they were headed home to dry up too.
I watched the match at a bar called Hemingway’s. (I’ve lived in Germany only one month and this is the second bar I’ve been to named after Big Papa. Are the Germans obsessed?) Tobacco leaves hung from the ceiling and the place peddled Mexican food to its patrons. And while the atmosphere and food were both strange, the bar did have a big screen set up for the game. As it neared 8:45 in the evening, the place filled up with drinkers. Nearly all of them wore the Germany strip and many of them had painted their faces. There was even a guy with a drum.
The German team started brightly. There weren’t great protests when Andrea Pirlo cleared the ball off the line. In fact, the drum beat continued steadily until Mario Balotelli’s 20th-minute strike, a goal that hushed the bar. Hands were on faces and the stunned audience watched through its fingers as the replays showed Antonio Cassano wriggle past Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng and hit that perfect little cross
for Balotelli to bury.
If defending was a little lax on the first goal, it was downright pathetic on the second. As soon as the ball was played over the top—before Balotelli even controlled it—a woman in the audience
screamed “LAHM!” The tone and emotion in her cry were perfect in that moment. Any one of us could have screamed the same thing, because what the hell was he doing back there?
And that was basically the game, right? It never felt to me like Germany was going to pull it back, except for the last five minutes when the late penalty made me wonder.
So what went wrong? There’s a feeling around here that overconfidence was an issue. But there were other issues too: The German defense had been suspect at times throughout the tournament and the German starting lineup wasn’t optimal. There seemed consensus among the folks I watched with that Mesut Ozil should have played through the middle instead of out wide, where it’s harder for him to pull the strings as he did in Germany’s preceding games. The Italians played a great game, but the Germans could have—should have—done better.
The big worry is that these players might have a confidence issue going forward. After all, they’ve shown well in the knockout stages of several recent tournaments, but they haven’t won anything. It’s tempting to label them “nearly men,” a team that succeeds only to a point but can’t finish. But this shouldn’t worry supporters too much. The German team was the youngest at Euro 2012 and will learn from its mistakes rather than internalize and suffer repeated failure. Furthermore, the Bundesliga’s reformed academy system, only just entering its second decade, is producing top players with the haste and consistency of a Mercedes plant churning out luxury cars. Whoever emerges from this talent pool over the next two to four years won’t carry any of the psychological baggage some in this group might.
Sure, the Germans are disappointed—many are downright devastated—but, as the stereotype goes, they’re a practical people. The team will learn from its mistakes and look toward the future. It should have done better Thursday night, but the future is bright.
Last night, I sat with an American friend on the Neckarwiese, a park along the Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany. A beach volleyball tournament was taking place not far away, but we didn’t talk much volleyball; we talked soccer.
My friend wanted to know if I thought the Greeks could upset the Germans. Yeah, I said. Remember the Greek team in Euro 2004?
Yeah, he replied. I think they can too, but when I tried to ask some of the Germans at work if they were worried about the Greeks, they weren’t hearing it.
Apparently, some people around here weren’t even willing to entertain the idea of a Greek upset. A Greek upset was close to inconceivable, but Euro 2004 loomed large. The general feeling in Heidelberg was of nervous confidence. The Germans knew they had an excellent team, but fingers were crossed all the same.
Time has a way of slipping by when among friends, and before long I realized it was 8:15, just a half-hour before match time. My wife and I scurried home and then made for our favorite pub. We walked quickly -- with purpose -- and as we neared the pub my wife pointed out how empty the streets were. We were the only people around on what was usually a bustling avenue. It was as though we were living the opening scene from 28 Days Later, only there weren’t hordes of zombies hiding in the nearby apartment buildings but captivated German football fans.
The pub, of course, was packed. The real nerves didn’t show among the supporters there until the ref whistled for halftime and the Germans had only scored one goal. Die Mannschaft had created chances but they hadn’t put any away. It’s hard to watch a heavily favored team squander first-half chances and not feel a sense of creeping dread. The more they missed, the more I looked at the Greek team and wondered. So when the Greeks equalized, the nervousness returned to the pub’s crowd, but this time a sense that the German team wasn’t playing well enough accompanied it.
The players seemed to know it too, but the response was impressive: they simply shifted out of first gear. It was like the worst thing the Greeks could have done was score, or at least score that early. Now the Germans were awake, and as they banged in goal after goal the confidence returned to the supporters, but this time without the nerves.
Outside, after the final whistle, a black Mercedes with flapping German window flags raced down the otherwise deserted street. Fireworks boomed in the distance. It was closing in on midnight, but Germany was wide awake. Something tells me they won’t need a wakeup call for the semi-final.
My plan was always to leave Poland after the group stage, and here I am, trying to ease my way back into my real life. On the whole, the trip was excellent. Here are some winners and losers from week two of my Polish adventure.
Readers of this blog will know I had an enjoyable time in Poland. Beyond my personal experience, I should note how prepared Poland was for the influx of (often drunk) foreign fans. Just think: for the quarterfinal in Gdansk, a city with a metro population of 800,000, they’re expecting 30,000 German fans and 10,000 Greeks. When that many tourists come to town, plenty could go wrong, but I doubt it will. The Polish—in Gdansk and across the country—seem well prepared.
Okay, maybe this is a bit unfair. After all, I didn’t visit. But if allegations of corruption and embezzlement brought to light by the Guardian are true, Ukraine may have squandered up to $4 billion dollars of money earmarked for infrastructure projects. It will be interesting to see what kind of investigations, if any, stem from these allegations after the tournament is over.
Winner: Irish fans.
The Irish fans captivated the Polish hosts with their manors and general good spirits. Relative to other supporters, the Irish fans earned a reputation for being respectfully merry and polite. The Poles were so impressed that a Wroclaw radio personality even suggested giving the Irish team automatic qualification to the next Euro Cup based on geniality alone.
Losers: Deutsche Bahn.
I picked on Poland’s PKP rail line last week. Now it’s time I spare a word for Germany’s famous train service. When I left Poland I took a Deutsche Bahn train from Wroclaw to Dresden. Like most Americans, I’m a relatively inexperienced train traveler, but I’ve grown to expect a level of comfort from Deutsche Bahn. Unfortunately, this cross-border experience failed to meet the company’s high standards. It wasn’t late like the PKP train, but the train seemed more than double booked. Imagine riding in a rush-hour New York subway for three hours. With all the bodies and luggage crammed into the cars, it was hard to breathe.
Winner: Couch Surfing.
In Wroclaw, I couch surfed for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with the service, Couch Surfing puts travelers in touch with hosts who are willing to let someone sleep in their home for free. Although I have friends who’ve surfed before, this was my first time. I was a bit nervous beforehand, but my nerves were unfounded. For three nights, a lovely young couple—a dentist and a computer scientist—put me up in their apartment on the edge of town. But they didn’t just give me a place to sleep. They fed me breakfast and coffee. They introduced me to their interesting friends. Best of all, they showed me around the city. I spent my last night in Wroclaw in a former communist bar where the price of a drink was far from capitalist and the bread with lard tasted, well, good. My stay in Wroclaw was a welcome change from the solitude of hotel life, and I met some people I’ll never forget.
In the waning moments of the Poland-Czech Republic game on Saturday night, the atmosphere in Wroclaw was notably subdued. The Polish fans had begun partying sometime that morning, drinking vodka and beer, chanting, laughing. Old-town Wroclaw was packed with fans by 4 p.m. local time, more than four hours before the game started. But now, as the final whistle approached, the crowd had gone quiet. Instead of merry fans waving their scarves and singing -- as they’d done all afternoon -- they clutched them to their chests and whispered prayers.
The Polish team needed a win to go on to the next round, but they were about to lose. Things didn’t look good. The team hadn’t attacked well throughout the second half and it didn’t look like it was going to score in the final minutes. Often in these situations, realists will look at their watches and head for the exits in an effort to beat the crowd. In downtown Wroclaw, that didn’t happen. The Polish supporters stayed and watched their team to the last kick, hoping, praying. At the final whistle, they didn’t turn violent. They didn’t seem angry with their team. Rather, the fan zone broke into a polite round of applause and then everyone shuffled off into the night to contemplate what could have been.
There was a feeling of inevitability about the defeat. The Polish team was the worst-ranked team at Euro 2012. You could argue it performed about as well as expected, finishing at the bottom of the group. The Polish supporters hoped for more, of course, but they didn’t expect it. Nothing was guaranteed.
And so while many fans were drunk and disappointed after the final whistle, they weren’t angry. They were contemplative and they bemoaned their country’s inability to produce a good team -- one man drunkenly lectured me on the misuse of his tax dollars, saying, “I pay tax, but for what?” -- but they recognized their team had worked hard and done its best.
In the small hours of Sunday morning, one fan put it like this: “We’re not good at football, but we’re good at hope.”
While the team didn’t win, it did give its country something to get excited about, something to dream about. And isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we fans get so emotionally involved in our teams? So we can collectively imagine some great achievement, however remote the actuality of achieving that thing is? It’s like playing the lottery: You play to dream, not because you expect to get rich.
As the fans filed out of the city center through the cobblestone streets of Wroclaw's old town, past the majestically lit castle (pictured above), they realized the Polish dream was over. Yet, it had been a good dream and a good run. If you gauge the Polish team in hope rather than goals scored, there isn’t a more accomplished team in the tournament.
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.
I had another travel day Friday, which means I was stuck on a train instead of where I should be, with the people. I'm now in Wroclaw, the last stop on my Euro 2012 tour of Poland. Here are three quick thoughts:
1) Wroclaw vs. the Fan Zone.
Wroclaw’s old town is rumored to be among the most beautiful in all of Poland. Last night, I walked through the neighborhood and was struck by the unique architecture and well-maintained old buildings. I’ll have to come back if I want to get a better feel for the place, however, because the fan zone in Wroclaw—and the head-high purple fence that surrounds it—is right in the middle of the city’s old town. In Gdansk and Warsaw, the fan zones are centrally located and yet out of the way. Unfortunately, the fan zone in Wroclaw is very much in the way. Imagine a fenced-in festival ground on the streets of New Orleans’s French Quarter. There’s not enough open space. It’s a square peg in a round hole. It makes everything feel claustrophobic.
2) No matches for Krakow?
Everywhere I go in Poland, people ask me about my itinerary. When I say I’m only visiting three big cities—Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk—they wonder why I’m not going to Krakow. Krakow is Poland’s second biggest city and its most popular tourist destination. It’s a university town and a center for art and culture. So why isn’t it a Euro 2012 host city?
The official answer, I’ve been told, is that Krakow’s host city application "just wasn’t very good compared to the other applicants." This answer seems a little too convenient for me. What if the United States hosted the World Cup and Los Angeles wasn’t selected as a host city? There would be some political fallout for sure. When it comes to Krakow, we may have to wait until after the Euro Cup if we want a satisfying answer.
3) On Poland’s Rivals.
Yesterday, I spoke at length with a Polish computer scientist named Artur. We talked about the crowd trouble on Tuesday and I wondered what it’s like in Poland when the National Team plays its other big rival, Germany. “Are things as tense?” I asked.
The answer, in short, is no. Both sets of supporters have their hooligans, to be sure, but the German and Polish supporters don’t clash like the Polish and Russian supporters do. They may share a troubled past but Germany and Poland are more economically integrated than Poland and Russia, which may explain some of the difference.
For Artur, it’s more about manners than anything. On Tuesday night, the Russian supporters in the stadium unveiled a giant banner that read, “This is Russia.” After bringing it up, Artur paused and shook his head. “The Germans would never do that,” he said.
The first week of my Poland trip is in the books. I’ve visited two host cities, so far (I leave for Wroclaw later this week). Which did I like better? It’s a tough call.
Here are some subjective comparisons:
The fan zone experience:
The fan zones in Gdansk and Warsaw have different vibes. One is mellow, while the other is frenetic. In Gdansk, the big screen faces a small hill, which allows viewers to watch games while relaxing on the grass. The Warsaw fan zone is set up in a giant plaza and is probably three times the size of Gdansk’s. In Warsaw, you’re pretty much guaranteed a crowd of 50,000 (on Poland’s match days that figure nearly triples) and with that amount of people comes a great deal of commotion -- worth point out that the place isn’t exactly conducive to relaxing. In Gdansk, you’re lucky if 10,000 people turn up. While I’m a big fan of watching games in a comfortable, seated position, fan zones aren’t about relaxing. They’re about going a little crazy. You can relax at home.
Warsaw and Gdansk were both well prepared to move fans to and from the stadium. In both cities you can get just about anywhere quickly and at low cost (one trip on Gdansk’s tram costs about $1). In Gdansk, the dedicated trams took fans from the city center to the stadium for free, both before and after the match. It was a very well-organized operation. The stadium in Warsaw is right across the river from the city center, and on Tuesday most fans walked. Those that went by tram, bus or train experienced no delays.
While it’s hard to say which city was more prepared from a transportation standpoint, public safety is a different story. Gdansk is the only Polish city that hasn’t had an incident of crowd violence.
Tiebreaker – the tourist’s perspective:
Choosing between Gdansk and Warsaw is tough. These places are about as different as two cities in one country can get. One’s on the coast, the other’s landlocked. One’s part of a small metro area of about 800,000 people, the other is a booming capital city with a metro population of more than 3 million.
So which is better? It’s a tough call. They both have nice qualities, and I encourage the readers of this blog to visit both. That said, if I had to choose one for a weekend getaway, I’d choose Gdansk every time. Warsaw just doesn’t have anything like Gdansk’s Old Town.
More assorted winners and losers:
Winner: Italian and Spanish fans. In Gdansk, I saw the two sets of supporters mix together in a completely amicable way. Everyone just wanted to have fun. And judging by the number of partiers still out when I caught my train to Warsaw at 6 a.m., they succeeded.
Winner: The Spanish guy with the drum. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy with the drum at the Italy-Spain match was Manuel Cáceres Artesero, aka "Manuelo, el del bombo" (Manuelo of the Drum). Mr. del Bombo has gone to almost every Spain match since 1982 and is something of a national treasure. He even has his own Wikipedia entry. No wonder the Spanish fans cheered when he emerged midmatch, walked to his seat, beat his drum and bowed.
Loser: The PKP. The PKP (short for Polskie Koleje Państwowe) is a state-owned train operator in Poland. It’s notorious for running behind schedule. On my trip back to Warsaw on Tuesday morning, I arrived about 30 minutes late and almost missed the daily safety and security press conference with the mayor.
Loser: Hooligans. You may have read my report on the street violence that preceded the Poland-Russia match on Tuesday. I witnessed a series of unfortunate incidents between different groups of supporters, and I think just about everybody in Poland was disappointed the next day.
Today’s march was supposed to be peaceful. The Russian fans were supposed to be secure as they marched across the river -- in honor of the 20th anniversary of Russia Day, a calendar mark to celebrate independence from the former Soviet Union -- to Warsaw's National Stadium, where their national team would take on Poland. This was assured by the mayor and reinforced by police spokesmen during daily press briefings. They told us about the 5,000 CCTV cameras positioned around Warsaw, the constant police patrols and the checkpoints. Mayor Hannah Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she would personally be in the fan zone’s crisis management center.
But no one really believed it would be peaceful. After all, there’s too much tension between the Poles and the Russians.
Today I asked a woman named Karolina about the two nations and their fraught relations. “History comes back,” she said. What history?
Look it up. It’s there. Put 1945 into Google. Try 1939. The Polish-Soviet war took place from 1919-1921. Don’t forget the war of 1792. In 2010, the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, died when his plane crashed in Russia. He was traveling to the site of the Soviet massacre. The victims? Poles.
The people here recited these dates to me. They rattled off the dates. They had them memorized. They’re not historians, they’re Polish.
So when I decided to go to the Russian rally, scheduled for today at 5 p.m. local time, I had a bad feeling.
History comes back.
Things started out peacefully enough -- just a lot of people drinking. No big deal. When I got there at exactly 4:34, the fans seemed relaxed. The Russian supporters stood on one side of the street, Polish supporters on the other.
The police seemed relaxed, too -- as relaxed as people can seem in body armor anyway. At 4:37, I made a note about how many police they were still trucking in. Hundreds, probably even thousands. The place seemed safe. What can go wrong with so many police around?
I asked a 23-year-old sociology student named Lukasz if he thought anything would happen. He said no, but then shrugged and said, “There are idiots among every nationality.” I guess that’s all it takes: a couple of idiots.
At 5:09, I noted that the groups were separated. They’d grown in size by then and were yelling chants back and forth, but down the middle of the street, in the space usually occupied by the trams, the police had parked a line of vans. On each side of the vans, between the vehicles and the two groups of supporters, a line of officers stood watching. Most of them held shotguns.
But here’s the thing. That line of vans? It was only 10 -- maybe 12 -- vehicles, and those vans were the only thing separating the two groups. The rest of Jerozolimskie Street was unsegregated. Patrolled, yes, but all you had to do to get around the vans was walk further down the road.
At 5:17, I began to hear fireworks and started to wonder. At 5:26, I saw the first skirmish. I don’t recall who did what to whom, only that suddenly we were all running. I ran toward the ledges in front of the Polish Army Museum (I was using their Wi-Fi) and when I looked across the street, I saw people throwing flares at other people. I saw some people swinging, others ducking. Yet, I witnessed no police response.
Then things settled down. The Russian supporters began to march across the river. You might even say things became a bit festive. I snapped a picture of a guy in a Darth Vader costume, even playing photographer for a passing family of four.
I got up to leave. I had things to do. I hadn’t eaten dinner. I had a blog post to write. But then I had to run again. Something was happening a little bit behind me, to my right. Somebody screamed. I turned and saw six or seven men swinging on two guys: red shirts on blue shirts. The blue shirts did what they could, but it was clear they couldn’t do much. One blue shirt went down on the tram tracks. They kicked him in the head. They stomped on his body.
And then they were gone.
The man in the blue shirt didn’t go, however. He stayed right there, blood pouring from his head. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving. He didn’t move again until 6:05, when paramedics loaded him into an ambulance. A phalanx of officers had surrounded the medics and the man, but after they took him away, the police walked back down the street, away from the bridge. The bridge was the bottleneck. They should have gone to the bridge.
Not long after they left, I heard a yell. It came from the bridge. A bunch of people were running -- 100? 200? It’s hard to say. They charged -- there’s no other word for it -- like medieval infantrymen but armed with flares instead of swords. More beatings. More kicks to heads. I held my vantage point on the ledge of the Polish Army Museum and watched it all.
The strange part was that the fans never stopped coming. They never stopped walking toward the bridge. Was this normal for them? I don’t know. It wasn’t normal for me.
At about 6:50, I could no longer see any police. They’d left. I did see plenty of red and white shirts, though. They moved toward the bridge, together. Nobody was there to keep them apart.
It was time for me to go.
Sunday, at exactly 3:00 p.m. local time, I decided I would go see Spain play Italy. I’d spent most of the morning in downtown Gdansk, listening to Spanish fans chant and drink and beat a drum. The game started at 6. It was now or never. I decided that it’d be hard to leave Poland and live the rest of my life knowing I could have seen Spain play Italy. In my opinion, this Spanish team is the best national team ever; the Italians, you may recall, aren’t so bad themselves. Here are some notes from the evening.
1) The ticket:
I’m not going to say how much I paid for the ticket. I’m sort of embarrassed about it. When I think about the price, I also think about what I could have purchased instead, and I blush. I will tell you that it wasn’t the €500 two Italians wanted (although, at first I thought they wanted only €50, which would have been an incredible deal). In fact, I passed up on a bunch of tickets all priced over €250 -- which seemed to be the average price of a scalped ticket Sunday night.
I eventually met a heavily tattooed Irishman who wasn’t afraid to negotiate. He worked with me, and I got a reasonable deal under the circumstances. Nevertheless, it was expensive, and before I gave him the money, I texted my wife to tell her I might spend an obscene amount of cash on this. “Should I do it?” I asked.
“It would be a great experience,” she told me.
I told her I loved her and handed over the money.
2) My seat:
As I went through the various layers of security (ticket check, pat down, ticket scan), I realized I didn’t even know what kind of seat I had. I worried I’d be up in the rafters, swatting at birds. When I realized my seat was in the lower stand, I began to smile. When I realized I was only 15 rows up, I did a little fist pump. When I realized my seat was right in the center of the 10,000 Spanish supporters, I may have danced a little jig.
I sat next to some older gentlemen from Gijon and some younger guys wearing flamenco dresses who were too drunk to really hold a conversation. About 10 minutes before game time, two English guys took the seats to my immediate left. When I took my seat, I dusted off my Spanish and exchanged pleasantries with the guys from Gijon. I wasn’t wearing any red and, feeling I owed them an explanation, mumbled something about being American. One of them, a man with short hair and a two-day beard, said, “Yes, you’re American, but you were born like you were Spanish.”
3) The Spanish fans:
The Spanish were, for the most part, great. They chanted and sang for almost the entire match. By my count, they went quiet only twice: during the Italian national anthem and after Italy scored. For the first half, a group of guys at field level, by the corner flag, led most of the chanting. In the 48th minute, a stocky man wearing a wide-brimmed, black hat emerged from the main stand exit to my left, holding a drum. He beat it twice and as the Spanish fans turned and cheered, he removed his hat and gave a deep bow. He played the drum for the rest of the match, the Spanish fans chanting along with the rhythm.
4) On Sergio Ramos:
In the 17th minute, Sergio Ramos put a pretty nice move on an Italian attacker, cutting out a pass and sliding the ball around his planted leg, bamboozling his opponent and winning possession. It struck me as a particularly confident thing to do when one-on-one and close to goal. A mistake in that position would have been catastrophic. I exchanged glances with the English guy seated next to me. We were both obviously impressed. “I don’t see John Terry ever pulling that off,” I said. He did not respond.
5) On Mario Balotelli:
Some Spanish fans racially abused the Italian striker. I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I didn’t have to write this right now but I’d be lying if I didn’t. It happened twice. I don’t know if the hooting came through on television or not; it may have been drowned out by the whistling. I should say that both times it only lasted for seconds, only a minority of fans participated and other fans turned and told them to knock it off. But it did happen. Twice.
6) On Fernando Torres:
When Fernando Torres came on for Cesc Fabregas, the Chelsea man received a wild cheer from the Spanish support (Cesc, who had just scored, received a polite, appreciative standing ovation). The cheers for Torres came as a bit of a surprise, only because of how much he’d struggled for the past two years. Those travails don’t matter. The Spanish supporters love him. I thought he did a decent job, too. Perhaps he was even unlucky not to score. He had some chances, but he fluffed them -- which is I guess about normal at this point.
As we rode the tram back to the city center, much of the talk was about Torres. Later, I ate a kebab alongside a several Spanish men wearing flags as skirts. They were talking tactics, arguing about Torres. The Spanish team looked dangerous with him, but it scored without him. Yet Spanish fans love him all the same.
For the city of Gdansk, Sunday was the moment of truth: hosting its first match of Euro 2012. It was a day that had been anticipated for nearly five years since the host nations were announced. Some 10,000 Spanish fans and 6,000 Italian supporters attended the match while authorities anticipated an additional 12,000 would watch from the fan zone. The city’s hotels were booked at 95 percent capacity.
Hours before kickoff, both sets of fans took to the streets to party, beat drums and sing. Things had so far remained civil, and the host city hoped they would remain that way. After all, the people of Gdansk were on the verge of their proudest moment in a long time. Around the world, 250 million TV viewers were expected to watch Spain play Italy. A glitch now would mean civic embarrassment: failure in what was supposed to be their finest hour.
For Gdansk, there was a lot at stake.
The entire Gdansk metro area has only 800,000 people, which seems like a lot until you consider that Los Angeles’ metro area has north of 12 million inhabitants. The most important port in Poland, Gdansk is also a place of rich history and a former member of the Hanseatic League. As such, the town is a combination of historic buildings -- Spanish fans centered their pregame festivities in the city’s picturesque “old town” -- and newer industrial districts.
Euro 2012 already has brought an unprecedented number of tourists to the city. Gdansk’s biggest annual event is St. Dominic’s Fair, a 752-year-old trade festival. It brings 10,000 visitors to town each year, which isn’t even half as many as traveled for Sunday night’s match. To put it another way, when I asked a resident Sunday whether Gdansk has ever hosted this many people before, she said, “Not since the second World War.”
For the television audience, it’s easy to gloss over all the preparation and coordination it takes to put on an event like the European Championship. How does a city suddenly accommodate 50,000-plus fans, most of whom don’t speak Polish? Answer: very carefully.
Yesterday, 111 planes arrived in Gdansk. In addition to the air traffic, 42 trains pulled into the city’s Główny train station. Many of the trains -- and 68 of the planes -- were chartered by supporters’ groups. Despite the massive influx of humanity, Deputy Mayor Andrzej Bojanowski said Sunday that he was “convinced we’ll manage.” And manage they did.
Gdansk’s impressive light-rail network transported most of the supporters around town. Ticketed fans rode to the stadium free of charge starting at 3 p.m. local time. In the evening after the game, free trams took passengers across town from the fan zone and the stadium. The trams ran on time, with an average wait of only 12 minutes.
After Thursday’s fan violence in Wroclaw in which Russian fans attacked a group of stewards after a match, safety was something on the mind of most fans here. Sunday night, Gdansk had close to 1,500 police officers on duty in addition to 150 municipal guards. Many of them were stationed at PGE Arena, but others directed traffic, patrolled the fan zone and conducted investigations when needed. Commanders coordinated the entire operation from a helicopter.
On Sunday, a representative from the regional police told the gathered international media that “those who threaten other fans will meet our officers soon.” She did not smile as she said it. As of this morning, the police have no major incidents to report.
Since arriving in Gdansk on Saturday, I’ve found the free trams convenient and the police presence comforting, but the most helpful people here are the hundreds of volunteers -- all of them multilingual -- who help guide fans around town. I’ve found them to be friendly, knowledgeable and eager to help. Around 500 volunteers worked during Sunday night’s festivities.
Sylvia Trapp is one such volunteer. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she’s lived in Gdansk with her grandmother for the past six months. She signed up to become a volunteer before even arriving in Poland. “It’s been really well-organized,” she told me. Each volunteer completed a week of training, learning first aid, how to navigate the city and where to find the local attractions. As a kind of payment, the volunteer organization provides its members with free travel, day trips, housing, massages and even yoga classes. It sounds like a nice way to experience the tournament, although on Sunday the volunteers were hard at work, talking with the Spanish supporters, guiding the Italian fans.
At Sunday’s news conference Bojanowski said, “The pressure has gone up.”
Monday morning he said, “We came out quite well.”
“The problem is that we cannot rest on our laurels,” he continued. “Our biggest challenge is the quarterfinals.”
Based on early evidence, Gdansk appears well-positioned to keep doing an excellent job.