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 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

I can’t fix the Euro 2012 draw (and it wouldn’t help England much anyway)

So, flushed by the success of a not-too-far-from perfect guess at the World Cup draw (and let’s … erm … draw a veil over how it actually turned out). Here’s a look at what tomorrow night’s Euro 2012 draw might throw up.

I said about 10 minutes after Poland/Ukraine got the event that England would end up in the deepest coal mine in the eastern Ukraine. Looking at the event map, that would seem to mean Donetsk and Group D alongside Ukraine, probably in slot D3.

Let’s assume also that Uefa don’t like the idea of the Germans going to Poland or Russia going to Ukraine or playing Poland, so Germany take the second seeded place in Group B and Russia go to Group C. That leaves Italy in Group A. They’re not going to fancy a Germany/Holland clash, at least so early in the competition, so Spain go into Group B as top seeds and Holland in Group C.

The bottom half of the draw is less obviously tempting for the fix-minded. But let’s assume that the Uefa wallahs don’t fancy both of the host nations going out early, so fast-emerging France go into one of the other pools – for the sake of argument, Group B. They’ll want to avoid an England-Ireland game so let’s have Ireland in Group A. If the rest of the draw is random, the final pools might look something like this:

  • Group A: Poland, Italy, Croatia, IRELAND
  • Group B: Spain, Germany, Greece, France
  • Group C: Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, Czech Republic
  • Group D: Ukraine, ENGLAND, Sweden Denmark

So, assuming it goes according to Fifa rankings (as it surely won’t), that would give us these quarter finals:

Croatia vs Germany

Netherland vs Denmark

Spain vs Italy

England vs Portugal

So another defeat to Ronaldo’s lot, realistically, or a stuffing by Spain in the semi-finals. Either way, we’ll have fun hopefully in Gdansk, where I’m planning to be for the early part of the finals!