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 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

World Cup fever

So, the election’s over, Blackpool FC are back in their rightful place in the Premiership… there must be something else going on this year, right?

Of course, a little under 48 hours from now it all kicks off in South Africa – and that’s not a reference to the street gangs who’ve dominated so much of the pre-tournament scaremongering.

Having run the predictor about 20 times now, I’ve not come up with a final that doesn’t involve the masterful Spanish facing the magical Brazilians. Sure, they’ll face tough games on the road to Soccer City – but nothing that’s beyond them. In fact, short of a stroke of luck, it’s hard to see them being stopped.

But luck, along with injuries, bad referees and rushes of blood to the head, can all play a part in a World Cup – which is what makes it great.

There’s even a scenario where the two favourites meet far earlier – in the second round. And all it takes is for one of them to fail to win their group. Brazil play home favourites the Ivory Coast and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Spain have, on paper, the easiest group bar England’s – but messing up in the World Cup is as Spanish as paella and Picasso, and complacency or panic can set in all too easily.

So who could come up on the rails to challenge?

Well, let’s think about history for a moment. No European side has ever won the World Cup beyond the boundaries of its own continent. No African side has ever reached the semi-finals (that may change, if a fair wind favours Ghana – one of those predictions suggested a handy path to the last four could yet open up for them) and the best of the Asians, South Korea, might not benefit quite like they did on home soil in 2002. That leaves the North Americans – the USA? Mexico? Don’t think so – and the best of the South. Could Argentina do it?

They’ve certainly got the talent. They’ve got the best player in the world right now. But can Leo Messi do what his coach, Diego Maradona, did in 1986 and overcome a powerful disadvantage to lead his team to glory? In Maradona’s case it was the mediocrity of his workmanlike team-mates (how many of them can you name? Think there was one called Brown). The irony is that Messi’s handicap is Maradona – an inexperienced coach who almost managed to blow qualifying, never mind the finals. Argentina’s performance will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole competition. And their path could see them take on Brazil. And England. Yes, what about England?

Well, there’s a sense of realism sweeping across the nation. We’ve got no divine right to win, nor the best players – although we’ve had worse. The group stage isn’t being seen as quite the cakewalk it once looked like. And the second round could see a clash with Australia, Ghan, Serbia or, heaven forbid, even them.
But, despite all that, the quarter-final looks achievable. There France or Argentina and, most likely, defeat will await. But there is a scenario – in fact, more than one scenario – that could see us waking up, three weeks from now, looking forward to a semi-final And then the nation truly will go truly mental.