||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
PubWatch: Dutch spring a surprise
You would think, would you not, that following England's brave but doomed qualification campaign UEFA would have seen sense and called the whole thing off. A tournament shorn of Wayne Rooney's impish banter, minus Steve McClaren's pearly necklace of wisdom, and without the faithful legion of replica-shirted merry-makers from this island - well, surely that looks about as much use as a farm with no pigs.
We're not used to being mere spectators at the feast. For a generation of England fans this is a new experience and for the first time since 1984 there are no participants at all from these islands at a major tournament. The buzz and vibe created nationwide by just being involved will be sorely missed and the sound of pub landlords across the country banging their heads and gnashing their teeth in anticipation of lost earnings will replace the roar of ten thousand packed pubs.
But Britain is home to the most cosmopolitan city in the world. London is a hive of cultures and races, a polyglot of languages and for these three summer weeks it will be alive with pockets of nationalistic footballing fervour of many different hues. So, always keen to seek out some action, Soccernet's Joe Duggan decided to join the throng of our European brothers and sisters to cheer on their boys in blue/white/orange/yellow/red/ etc, etc.
Switzerland v Czech Republic
The Swiss are not exactly renowned for their sporting fervour so it seems apt to take in their opening game of the tournament in the comparative tranquillity of the charming Swiss Church. At this oasis of celestial calm in the middle of Covent Garden's vibrant hub, fans of the national team have come to gather and worship at the throne of Kobi Kuhn and his eleven disciples.
Perhaps it is the setting, but the atmosphere here is polite rather than raucous. The emergence of the teams for the opening match is greeted by the murmur of distracted conversation, the national anthem by a smattering of lone individuals rising to their feet amidst rows of sedentary silence.
At least their team look lively with skipper Alex Frei in particular foraging busily up front. Petr Cech parries Frei's long-range effort and, as the noise level inside the church pitches then drops, the man next to me remarks 'I've never seen the Swiss get so excited'. All are silent however when a distraught Frei hobbles from the pitch. He departs, taking with him his team's only genuine chances of success.
Being on a budget, it seems prudent to do likewise as a half-time request for donations to the church's restoration is made. A brisk walk across Soho takes us to the Swiss bar St Mortiz. The Kinks played here and the venue was immortalised in song by the 101'ers. There is little evidence of this raucous heritage amongst those watching in the intimate venue. Events on the pitch don't help their mood. Frei re-appears but on crutches, the Czechs take the lead and then Yakin and Volanthen both pass up glorious chances to salvage a point for the hosts. Defeat leaves them with a mountain to climb. Any Swiss fan in St. Moritz will tell you how hard that is.
Portugal v Turkey
A journey southwards sees us seek out the Portuguese stronghold around Stockwell and Oval. Our destination is the Nacional restaurant, formerly known as the Vasco Da Gama. The intrepid explorer himself would have had difficulty navigating his way from Oval tube but it's worth the winding walk and on the way old and young alike pass by, bedecked in the Portuguese colours.
We arrive at the bar just as the national anthem starts up and it is belted out lustily by the Portuguese fans inside - whilst chefs work busily away preparing delicious smelling tapas. The Portuguese team come flying out the traps and the Nacional rises as one to greet what looks like the opening goal only to see Pepe's effort chalked off for offside.
As half-time approaches the sound of drums outside draws us on to the street. Just a few blocks down, several hundred fans have congregated outside the Bar Estrella to watch proceedings on giant screens. Passing bars and buses honk their approval and the arrival of Portugal's first goal, Pepe's first for his country, sends the crowd in to delirium.
Non-stop singing accompanies the beat of Brazilian drummers keen to get involved in this footballing fiesta. The second goal is greeted as if the tournament has been won. As pandemonium breaks out a Benfica fan embraces me and informs me' I am happy. We are happy. EVERYONE IS HAPPY'. It hardly needs pointing out. Behind him the police are blocking off the roads as the party spills on to the street.' See you here for the final' he says before dancing off in to the crowd, victorious chants of 'Portugal' filling the South London night air. You wouldn't bet against it.
Poland v Germany
Given the huge influx of Poles to Britain over the last few years, Leo Beenhaker's team are sure to enjoy a huge support from these islands. It's a potential readership those long-standing friends of Poland, The Sun, have been quick to court.
Meanwhile, their tabloid counterparts in Poland have thrown fuel on to this already explosive fixture with the infamous front page showing Beenhaker wielding Michael Ballack's severed head. Beenhaker has since been keen to emphasise that this is just a game.
Given the painful relationship between these two countries that is probably a forlorn hope and certainly the Polish fans gathered in the White Eagle club seem fuelled by more than sporting ambition and Lech.
Krzysztof, a shaven-headed, friendly Celtic fan is showing me the cut on his head, an injury sustained whilst trying to suspend his flag from his balcony. The flag is emblazoned with the number 1410. The significance of the date? A broad smile. 'The last time Poland beat Germany'.
Ancient battlefields aside, a more modern manifestation of this fractious relationship is the presence of several Poles in the German team. 'If Klose and Podolski score today they won't be going back to visit their grannies this summer' Krzystof reckons.
The sweltering interior of the vast White Eagle hall matches the red hot passion of these fans. The chants of 'Polska' reverberating around the venue from an hour before kick-off give way to unanimous boos as the German national anthem is played (ah, home sweet home). Air is in short supply, polish sausage and cans of Zywiec are not but the Poles don't have much to toast. Podolski bags a brace, presumably cancelling two holidays in the process, but his celebrations are muted. The noise level in here has not abated but the second goal signals that the most unwelcome losing streak in football continues as fans stumble out of the White Eagle.
Holland v Italy
The iridescent glow emanating from De Hems when De Oranje are playing would be enough to guide planes towards Heathrow were a power cut suddenly to engulf London. Unfortunately for the only Dutch pub in London this is precisely what happens a few hours before the Netherlands opening fixture against world champions Italy.
A long motionless queue snakes round the corner but the downstairs bar is out of bounds due to the power failure so the overspill from the pub head over the road to the Golden Lion. It may have the wrong colour, but the Dutch soon turn the bar into a mini-sea of orange amongst which a lone Italian fan stands. He is soon wishing he had stopped round the corner at Bar Italia where his compatriots might offer some small consolation.
The Dutch quite simply blow away Italy with an attacking display of such prowess that their status as relative underdogs in the 'Group of Death' is similarly dispatched. The 3-0 scoreline flatters the Italians.
Outside the bar, Mike a PSV fan, and Toine, an Ajax fan, are understandably jubilant. 'Holland should make the second round now, 'says Mike. 'I was confident before but the Dutch were so energetic'. Toine is full of praise for Van Basten: ' Marco picked the right team. We are normally disappointed by the Dutch'. Not tonight.
Both were hugely impressed by the defensive display of Boulahrouz but this was a commanding Dutch performance in every area. Their second goal harked back to the days of total football when Johan Cryuff was still twisting defenders' blood. Cryuff has been vocal in his criticism of the current set-up but surely he will have been as happy to feast on these grumbling words as we were to see his country put EURO 2008 firmly on the footballing map.
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