Euro 2012 – the jolly green minnows

The scene in Sopot’s central square the morning before the Ireland-Spain demolition

The temporary hostel home of more than a few Irishmen
The small seaside town of Sopot has has more than a few flags fly over it during its 1,000 year history. But it’s the Irish tricolor that dominates this week. The town is not only the temporary home of the Irish national team, but also thousands of their fans, who aren’t letting the little matter of the football stop them from having a good time. As one Irishman put it, to one of the multitudes of television crews interviewing fans slumped outside the cafes along the famous Monte Cassino strip, “even getting to Poland is a victory for us”. Along with a few isolated groups of Spaniards, they’ve brought a big tournament atmosphere to the Baltic coast.

Parking the bus, Irish style, outside Sopot’s impressive Sheraton resort, the tournament base for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men

Gdansk comes alive

The Irish fans seem to have an inexhaustible supply of costumes to wear – this was on Friday, the day after the Spain game
The most common question I’ve been asked when I’ve told people I’m spending my summer holiday in Gdansk is “isn’t it a bit grim and industrial”. Well, yes … in a few spots. The shipyards still survive and there are plenty of dank, Soviet era apartment blocks scattered around. But the old town is a fine example of Hanseatic League architecture, and it was almost as packed with fans as Sopot – although the Irish made up only 50 per cent or so of the crowd, rather than the 95 per cent they represented a few kilometres down the coast.
This statue of Neptune is an ancient symbol of Gdansk and Poland
While it was a little chilly to be sitting outside, plenty did on streets lined with pavement bars and cafes, most with outdoor television screens to lap up the atmosphere. The city’s attractions also include the vast Church of St Mary, where thousands of Solidarity supporters sought sanctuary during Poland’s era of martial law in the early 1980s. While the shipyard cranes occasionally hover above one of the towering townhouses, it’s nothing more than a reminder that this is a living city, not just a monument to the past.

Gdansk’s historic waterfront – and yes that is a pirate’s galley you can see in the centre-left of the picture

But on the downside

Spain’s fan embassy
My dad and I lasted approximately 10 minutes at the ‘Fan park’ built between Gdansk’s main station and the stadium. It has a massive screen, space for 30,000 fans and a Noel Gallagher concert booked in for next week. But on the day we visited, a handful of people stood around drinking the overpriced beer of the sponsors, watching a recreation of medieval swordfighting (strange, as the acres of warning signs outside specifically precluded bringing in weaponry) played table football or crowded the merchandise stall, eager to use up the credit on the prepaid debit cards provided by another sponsor, the only ‘currency’ allowed in the zone. It may come alive during matches, but on a gameday afternoon, it was nothing more than a desolate temple to commercialism – and it didn’t help that the army of staff, who vastly outnumbered the fans, insisted on frisking everyone on entry.
Chilling out in the Gdansk sunshine
Far better was the fan embassy in the city centre. The atmosphere was more relaxed, with information points for supporters of the various national teams. The sponsors were in evidence again but at least this time one of them, the Dutch bank ING, was offering something useful – free lockers where supporters could leave their bags. A sponsor doing something useful and thoughtful to promote their brand? Let’s hope it catches on.

The giant screen in the desolate ‘fanzone’

Euro 2012 Day Five – there was a Checkpoint Charlie

And, frankly, it’s become a bit of a tourist trap. In fact probably Berlin’s most outrageous tourist trap. Guards gurn in vintage uniforms and offer ‘visa stamps’ and photographs – for a price, of course. Every building within half a kilometre seemed to incorporate ‘checkpoint’ into its name somewhere – I lost count of the number of ‘Checkpoint Currywurst’ kiosks. Somewhat better was the adjacent Checkpoint Charlie museum – although at 12 euros a pop it was by some way the most expensive museum I saw. And while its collection of material relating to escape attempts and informative displays on wall life is impressive, the presence of a gallery devoted to a hagiography of German publisher Axel Springer and a vast display on the current and former role of Nato perhaps offers a clue to the fact that the excessive entrance fees aren’t the only place this private museum gets its funding from.

From the Checkpoint Charlie museum
There’s nothing wrong with that, and there was no sign of an agenda apart from a pointed dedication to freedom, a message that should resonate everywhere. But it does make you wonder what might have been left out.

The in-situ stretch of the Berlin Wall

Better was the nearby Topography of Terror exhibition, set beneath one of the last remaining in-situ pieces of the Berlin Wall and on the site of the former gestapo headquarters. It sets out in detail how the Nazis came to power and the consequences. But … and this is one way in which the Checkpoint Charlie museum does better than many others in Berlin – the story is told in geopolitical terms. It would have been interesting to read, hear and see what ordinary Germans had to say about the rise to power of the Third Reich and its impact. It’s too easy to see that tragic era in terms of broad strokes of history – it should never be forgotten that millions or ordinary people, through stupidity, greed, desperation or … and this bit has contemporary resonance … disillusionment with what was on offer from the ‘old’ parties turned to the Nazis as a solution.

The Olympic Stadium – still going strong after 75 years

Grounds for concern
And another thing – Berlin’s Olympic Stadium was built in broadly the same era as London’s Wembley stadium. Why is it London’s iconic stadium had to be bulldozed to make way for a concrete bowl with all the character of a Tesco store, while Berlin could refit the stadium to host the World Cup final?

Czechs bounce, Greece weeps
The Czechs were well beaten by Russia but came back strongly against the Greeks, who rode their luck a bit to grab a draw with co-hosts Poland. While they retain an outside chance of going through, it looks like Greece will be leaving the Euros even before it leaves the euro.

Political football
Euro 2012 isn’t exactly short of politically charged clashes – see also Netherlands against Germany last night – but they don’t come much stormier than Poland’s game with Russia. The street violence earlier in the day was sadly all too predictable, but the game itself was a cracker as the Poles played above themselves to get a draw that could so easily have been a victory. They now need to lift themselves and play as well again against the Czech to set up a potential quarter-final epic against the Germans. Which, happily, would be the game I’m going to a week on Friday!

Euro 2012 – Day Four

Bunker Mentality

The corridors may look narrow now – but in the event of a nuclear crisis, another row of bunk beds would be installed
The day started – as any good day should – with a visit to a nuclear bunker. Not an inactive Cold War relic or an alternative seat of government, but a living, breathing nuclear bunker, yards from the shops of the city and ready to be pressed into service at a couple of week’s notice, cramming in 3,000 Berliners to survive the apocalypse. Tours of the bunker are a highlight of The Berlin Story, an excellent, interactive museum that, like so many of the city’s sites, takes an unflinching approach to the grim periods of Berlin’s past, through wartime, division and reunification. But it’s the bunker, built in the 1970s, that stands out. Around one per cent of Berlin’s inhabitants would have cowered in shelters like this in the event of a nuclear war – piling in on a first-come first-served basis and being expected to organise themselves – deciding how to divide the food and treat the sick.
Your bed – for two weeks
They would have stewed in temperatures of up to 35 degrees and 90 per cent humidity, surviving on 2.5 litres of water per person, per day for washing, cooking and eating. But worse was to come … after two weeks, the air filters would pack in and the survivors would be forced out into the streets above, with no plan for their existence thereafter and little chance of survival. So, a desperate group defending for two weeks with the prospect of certain elimination ahead … that brings us neatly to ….

England – all right?
It started brightly enough, as it often does for England, with Joelon Lescott getting his unfeasibly large forehead on a corner to open the scoring. Fortunately the national hysteria was tempered nine minute later when Samir Nasri picked his spot far too easily, showing a level of technique few Englishmen could dream of. England need a rare victory against Sweden or a win over the hosts to progress. Perhaps two draws would do it, at a push. Neither possibility can be dismissed, but despite glimpses of promise from Oxlade-Chamberlain, there remain too many players in this England side who give the ball away far too easily. A good run in this competition will be no more than a sticking plaster – we continue to fall behind.

If Roy Hodgson’s looking to park the bus, let’s hope it’s a bit more robust than this Trabant

Eastern promise

Looking east!

I head east tomorrow, and at the moment the Ukraine look the more capable of the co-hosts to progress, thanks to Andrei Shevchenko scoring half as many goals in six minutes as he managed in his first 30 games for Chelsea. Should add that my thoughts on this game are a bit limited by the beers I had in the Irish Pub during the England game. Took me 20 minutes to realise the Sweden were the team in blue. The Irish Pub is well worth a visit, BTW. Guinness there is cheaper than in Hong Kong. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.

So forward to Gdansk! By way of an early departure from Berlin’s spectacular central station. As such, not sure when the next blog will be.

No relation

Euro 2012 – Day Three … another brick in the wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall at Potsdam Platz

Putting a massive telly in front of the Brandenburg Gate to watch the football on is a great idea. There’s just one slight flaw in the plan. If you do that, you can’t see much of the Brandenburg Gate (at least from the western side).

A big telly, yesterday. In the background is the Brandenburg Gate
It’s not the most respectable approach to a venerable monument that was obscured and cut off by a hideous structure for much of the 20th Century. And it really wasn’t helped by the fact that they didn’t even bother to turn it on for what promised to be one of the early highlights of the tournament – Sunday’s showdown between Italy and Spain. That’s why, after a healthy walk across the length of the Tiergarten, the vast and slightly wild urban park at the heart of Berlin, I joined a young crowd of Italians and Spaniards huddled around a television no bigger than the one in my living room.
The crowd in the fan park
The atmosphere in the Hyundai Fan Park was great, the beer overpriced and I went and sat down in a nearby bar for the second half. So nice idea Berlin and the sponsors – but think it through next time.
A better view of the Brandenburg Gate from the east, with actors mugging as Russian and American guards in front of it

Spain in pain?
The Spanish certainly didn’t look like a side who’d lost their appetite, but maybe they have lost their way a little. My dad reckons the state of the pitch in Gdansk didn’t help their passing game. Italy fielded what must be the first all-certifiable strike partnership in the history of international football, and it was no surprise to see Mario Balotelli withdrawn before he could get himself sent off – while Antonio Cassano wasn’t much better. It was no surprise that they went ahead and no coincidence that the goal came the first time Andrea Pirlo – the king of the 2006 World Cup – got on the ball and drove forward. He’s knocking on a bit, but if Pirlo is on form, don’t rule Italy out of this competition.

Dire Eire
Found a very nice Irish bar (with a very nice Irish waitress) in the basement of the famous Europa Centre, near Zoo Station. That was the highlight of the evening, as the inadequacies of some of the Irish players – especially Keith Andrews and Stephen Ward – were painfully exposed by the Croatian master technicians. No doubt it won’t stop the Irish fans having fun, but with Italy and Spain to come, their prospects look dire.

Croat on the town

Party time for Berlin’s Croatians

One thing that Berlin wasn’t short of last night was pissed up Croats. They were a sight to behold, although it was a bit alarming that they were driving up and down the famous Kurfürstendamm shopping street flying their flags and sounding their horns, in everything from scooters to rather posh cars. A big green police van’s sirens added to the cacophony, and there was a touch of the Keystone Cops about the way the Croats made sharp U-turns and headed back up the street, foxing their pursuers. I have video of this, but no facility to edit it at the moment!

There must be more to life …
Not wishing to perpetuate any national stereotypes but … firstly, I’ve eaten more sausages in the last three days than I have in the last three years. Fortunately Berlin seems to have plenty of ethnic eating options, which will have to be explored in the next few days. Secondly, the Deutsche Bahn is incredibly efficient, whizzing from Hamburg to Berlin in a little more than an hour and a half. Spacious seats, clean carriages, helpful staff … Britain’s railways have improved hugely, but they’re still frighteningly far behind.

The Bundestag is surrounded by some remarkable modern architecture
The Germans have also done a marvelous job of recreating the heart of their city, with modern architecture sitting comfortably alongside the rejuvenated Bundestag building.

A mystery … solved
In my first blog post, I bemoaned the fact that everyone (from the toilet attendant and the beggars upwards) pinned me as an English speaker instantly. Strangely, with the glasses on, the opposite is true. Random strangers attempt to start conversations in German … to which I reply ‘ist gut, ja’ and grin inanely, hoping against hope that they’re not telling me my flies are undone. Pictorial evidence below.

English yobbo
Sophisticated continental type

Euro 2012 – Day Two

So, German match night in Hamburg – a bit of an uncomfortable situation for an Englishman to be in. But an experience not to be forgotten. The atmosphere was building all day, especially in the party area of St Pauli. Even early in the afternoon, the atmosphere was building. An area at the centre of the Reeperbahn was set out with kiosk bars and food stalls, all with their own televisions, while the park around the stadium of FC St Pauli – Hamburg’s famously anarchic second club, whose skull and crossbones logo is everywhere – was designated as a fan park. As it happens, jetlag, five hours of walking around the city and concern about being recognised as an Englishman forced me to reconsider a plan to return there in the evening and settle for a seat in the hotel bar. As it happens, I don’t think the nationality issue would’ve been a problem – a noisy group of Dutch fans marched towards the Reeperbahn in full colours and shouting Hup Holland Hup with nobody challenging them. Speaking of the Dutch …

Who are you and what’ve you done with Robin van Persie?
The Dutch bottled it. Simple as. Twice, Robin van Persie is presented with the ball with a sight of goal, twice he ‘controls’ it further than some people can pass it. What is going on with the Arsenal striker, normally technically perfect? The rest of the Dutch side huffed and puffed without actually creating very much. The Danes took their chance well and looked assured in possession, without ever being particularly threatening. The fact Dennis Rommedahl is still in their team – and still as painfully average as he was in his Charlton days – is telling. But a draw against Portugal may yet be enough to see them out of the ‘Group of Death’ while Holland must get results – and at least one win – from their tough games against Germany and Portugal.

Riding their luck – again
This was supposed to be a different kind f German side – with flair, rather than efficiency, the watchword. Yet they rode their luck just as their predecessors have done at so many major tournaments (see the incredibly mediocre outfit propelled to the 2002 World Cup final by the brilliance of Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack). The Germans created little, while Portugal often looked dangerous on the break. Mario Gomez was unfortunate to see his goal chalked off but there were plenty of anxious faces around the bar before Sami Khedira’s cross took a wicked deflection to fall perfectly for the Brazilian-born frontman to head home. The cheers were a sign of relief as much as anything.

Hamburg’s cultural melting pot

The anarchist spirit lives on in St Pauli

A quick stroll around the hotel yields restaurants offering cuisine from Vietnam, Thailand, India, Italy, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and no fewer than three Portugese restaurants – all, strangely, called Vasco da Gama. In fact the Portugese flag was a fairly common sight through the day, often sold alongside the German flag. Besides that, the St Georg district is also the heart of Hamburg’s gay community and has a plethora of churches and mosques.
‘Thug Life’ with the famous skull badge associated with the St Pauli area and St Pauli FC in particular

Meanwhile St Pauli, the heart of the anarchist community in the 1970s, feels like a place that’s trying to fight off gentrification and, on the whole, winning. The graffiti and street art give the place a very unique ambiance. While the Reeperbahn is best known for being the heart of the red light district (some nearby sidestreets are shielded by barriers, covered in signs barring entry to men aged under 18 and to women – except, presumably, those who are ‘working’) it’s also the place where the Beatles made their name and honed their skills. While it undoubtedly has its seedy corners, the Reeperbahn yesterday was full of families, out either for the football or to attend one of the many theatres that line the road.
Anarcho-communist art in St Pauli. The sign in the background reads ‘do not piss here’. The smell says it is widely ignored

Now, on to Berlin ….
Voting is still open in the ‘who will win’ poll on yesterday’s post

Euro 2012 – Day One reflections

Hamburg’s Rathaus, or town hall

Guten tag from the beautiful city of Hamburg, for the first blog of a person Euro 2012 journey that will take in three cities, two countries, a couple of live matches, a bit of culture and (undoubtedly) a lot of beer. And probably not all that many blog posts.

Day One of Euro 2012 was observed through the smog of jetlag, so please take this into account!

The Russians are coming
Undoubtedly the day belonged to Russia, who tore to pieces a Czech Republic side not known for being flakey in major tournaments. Their passing and movement was a joy to behold and it’s not too hard to believe that they could win this tournament – or certainly be the best ever team to come out of Russia (remember that the Soviet Union’s Euro 88 finalists were almost all Ukrainians). Certainly the many who tipped Alan Dzagoev to be the breakout star of the tournament can afford to feel a little smug this morning.

Poles apart
A successful home nation (or two) is handy for any tournament, and the way Poland started their opening game gave plenty of cause for optimism. They really got at the Greeks, with wingers targeting the area between the full back and central defender in a manner somewhat reminiscent of England. Their dominance in the first half was absolute, but there was a nagging doubt that the one goal would be enough, and so it proved as the Greeks scored a fortuitous equaliser and would have had a somewhat undeserved victory had it not been for Przemyslaw Tyton’s penalty save after Wojciech Szczesny was sent off. Poland rallied late on, but you couldn’t help but feel that what they really needed was two versions of the superb Robert Lewandowski – one to make the chances, the other to finish ’em off.

Aren’t Germans nice?

This is how to tastefully integrate old buildings and modern shops. Take note HK!

Coming from the cool, keep-your-distance world of Hong Kong, the warmth of the German people is a joy to behold – as is the fact that they manage to install shops in old buildings tastefully and manage to preserve their heritage without sacrificing their old buildings. One thing I’m wondering is – why does every German greet me in English? Do I give off a vibe of Englishness? If so, how do I make it stop?

Purely for Lolz, here’s a quick poll