Euros on the Ground
Despite the plane being full of leather clad Russians, all of whom were looking rather serious and sporting perfectly symmetrical, comb down fringes; as we hit the tarmac for the opening weekend of the Euros in Poland there was nothing but a smile on my face.
The irate-for-no-good-reason-Russians & I were greeted by a shiny new airport terminal, which matched the spanking new airport bus, which drove past the brand new stadium, which made it clear from the get go that the Polish were wearing their Sunday best for this greatly anticipated tournament.
Whilst the affable Poles did an admirable job of hosting, there was no shaking the Eastern Bloc feel of this Euros. Everything from the concrete render finish on the Miejski Stadion, to the military style friskings when entering the Fan Zone, to the curious tri colour salads that accompanied the massive slabs of meat; all bore the musty stank of a cold war hangover.
Before the opening match in Wroclaw (Russia vs Czech Republic), the atmosphere in the beautiful old town was brewing nicely and all were hoping that it wouldn’t boil over. It was a distinct possibility as the Russians marched around pumping out chants that were so militant, they would have made Che Guevara look like nothing more than a GP from Bueno Aires.
The Czech fans were far more relaxed as they went about their business of maintaining their status as the world’s leading consumers of beer.
UEFA’s concerns about ambush market clearly didn’t extend to the city centre, as there were enough promo girls floating around to have me believe the playboy mansion had installed a tunnel direct to Wroclaw. Three new credits cards, four new mobile phone contracts & a couple of carcinogenic- Eastern-Bloc energy drinks later, we decided to drag out sore necks out to the stadium.
As we began to make our way, the early game was in full swing and it was the hosts, Poland, in complete control at half time against Greece. Few could have predicted that just a week later, the Greeks would not only be going to the polls but finishing above them. Football is the most unpredictable beast and only time will tell if Zeus’ lightning can strike a second time and deliver Greece the most unlikely of tournament victories.
Not having tickets turned out to be no problem at all as we encountered an older Russian man on road out to the stadium who looked desperate to sell. Using his trophy wife as an interpreter, we offered him half price and as the rain started to get heavier, he begrudgingly took it. Little did we know, the old man must have had some serious UEFA connections. As we moseyed in to our seats right on the halfway line and rested out feet on the dugout just a few meters from the head of Russia’s Roman Pavlyuchenko, it looked as though the football Gods were smiling on four Aussies with an unwarranted interest in European football.
The quest for a pre-game beer lead us to a lengthy line serving Carlsberg. It was only after standing in the queue for a few minutes we saw the most deflating, un-Polish fine print imaginable. There in English, of all languages, written in the equivalent of font size 8 on a large beer sign were the dreaded words ‘Non Alcoholic’.
After consulting the ‘beer’ server who shamefully confirmed the lack of potency, we felt it only appropriate to inform the line full of Czechs and Russians looking to wet the whistle, before the whilstle, about UEFA’s fun police policy. This deterred barely any of them and one even turned to me, shrugged his shoulders and said in an accent that belonged to a bond villain “it is still a beer.” Well, actually Sir, no it isn’t. But despite this, they took the cold ones away a half dozen at a time and I even saw something resembling a beer snake later in the night, but minus the messy tribe you usually see in Bay 13 holding it aloft.
The game itself was a cracking affair with Russia dominating proceedings and looking very sharp. Alan Dzagoev, himself a victim of the uniform Russian fringe, looked highly deserved of the hype that surrounds him. Arshavin’s oversized rump seemed to stretch from the wing to the area behind the strikers but his creative influence was palpable. Pav scored a cracker, largely because I whispered in his ear before he went on that he should shoot on site, something Spurs fans will claim he was already fully aware of.
The Czechs were virtual onlookers although they did have a sniff after getting it back to 2-1 as Vaclav Pilar, ‘the Czech Messi’ according to the chaps next to me, found the net. Despite the goal, the only comparisons I could draw with Messi were the fact he was left footed and most likely needed growth hormones as a child.
Apparently this game was marred by violence against the stewards although we saw nothing of the sort and as we filed out, we high fived the Mr Tickets & his trophy wife who had, unforgivably, ended up with worse seats than us.
It was a fantastic match with goals a plenty and the ensuing party went long into the night. A perfect start to our time in Poland and a great taste of the best the Euros has to offer. Well, apart from the kiddy beer that is.