Euro 2012: The agony of being a Poland fan
I am Polish, I suppose. I wasn’t born there, but both my parents were, and although I’ve lived in England since I was a toddler, I have an unmistakably Polish name and people sometimes still insist on calling me “that Polish guy Jan”. I guess I’m one of those who could be called “British” rather than “English”, the highest designation for any immigrant to this country. I don’t have much to do with Poland – I never did – although I did spend about a year in Warsaw in the 90s and my father lives there again these days.
When it comes to international football, I have always been an England fan. Mexico ’86 was the first World Cup I can remember watching, and I cheered Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland and cursed Maradona’s “Hand of God” along with everybody else. Whenever England were drawn against Poland in subsequent qualifying competitions, as sure as people would invoke Jan Tomaszewski’s goalkeeping heroics at Wembley in 1973 (the famous draw that kept England out of the 1974 World Cup), so I would vociferously support England, and pity those poor English commentators who had to wrap their mouths round the most difficult surnames this side of Sri Lanka for one night only. The three lions would usually muscle past the white eagle, and I never seemed to experience any conflict of loyalties. But then something changed. I don’t know if it was my year in Poland, my Polish partner at the time, or my involvement in Polish TV sports that did it. But little by little, I began cheering for the “biało-czerwoni” (the red-and-whites). In 2002 I travelled to the World Cup in South Korea to work for the host broadcasters, reporting on (amongst other things) the Poland camp. 2002 was a significant year for them: after 16 years away from international tournament finals, they were finally back in the World Cup and desperately keen to burnish their legend (they had come 3rd in two World Cups between 1974 and 1982). Of course they fell hopelessly short, losing to the co-hosts Korea in their first game, being swept aside by the talented Portuguese in their second, only salvaging some honour with a 3-1 win against the USA when it was too little, too late. I remember watching that last game from the media centre of the stadium in Daejon, and cheering far too loudly every time Poland scored, most unprofessional. That was the last time I worked in TV sports.
After 2002, the Poles became quite adept at qualifying for the major tournaments, getting into two World Cups and one European Championships. But a disquieting pattern started to emerge, something all-too familiar to supporters of lesser footballing nations that still maintain a deep footballing culture (like Scotland, for example). Though they might boss their qualifying groups, when it came to the finals, they would flop badly, often emerging as candidates for worst team in the competition. But the hope/hype would never die: every time they qualified, Poles would get carried away and start talking about the possibility of a “medal”, much like people do with England. Then 2012 came along.
For someone like me, whose parents had fled bad old communist Poland and who could remember the desperate days of Solidarity and martial law (sending food parcels to Warsaw), the prospect of Poland hosting the Euros was almost unbelievable. The fall of communism was one thing, joining NATO was another, and being admitted into the EU was probably most extraordinary of all (suddenly being able to catch flights to places like Bydgoszcz and Rzeszów from Stanstead airport was positively surreal). But hosting the Euros and actually pulling it off was something I could scarcely wrap my head around. For all their famous industriousness, Poland is a poor country (poorer than Greece), and the huge infrastructure-building project that lay in wait for them was daunting.
But, as many of us in the UK are pleased to know, the Poles deserve their reputation as excellent builders and grafters, and come June the 8th, everything seemed to be in place. The new stadia in Warsaw, Gdańsk and Wrocław looked suitably space-age and stunning, and arguably stunned the Poles themselves more than anyone in the old West. These days whenever a country gets awarded a major sporting event, we expect stadia to sprout up like mushrooms, but Poland is Poland and has never seen the like. The site of the National Stadium in Warsaw, once a communist superbowl, had for years been home to Europe’s largest open-air market: a famously dodgy bazaar where you could pick up a puppy or a pistol if you looked hard enough. Now out of its ashes rose a spiked cathedral of football, with 58,000 seats and a retractable roof, a new Wembley for Warsaw. On the first day of the Euros, when the hosts played Greece there, Poland’s biggest broadsheet proclaimed that they had already won the Euros, now came the easy part: winning the football.
And so it began, against a red and white sea of fanatical fans, whose deafening cheers practically raised the retractable PVC roof every time their team touched the ball. In the first quarter of an hour Poland pressed like furious boxers, and the Greeks were rocking. When poster boy striker Robert Lewandowski headed in on 18 minutes, it was red and white ecstasy. When the Greeks went down to 10 men shortly before half time, it seemed like it could only be Poland’s night. But then Greece “did a Chelsea”, finding determination in adversity and equalising shortly after the break, a sucker punch. When Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny clumsily conceded a penalty and got sent off, we started to feel queasy. Were we going to lose our first ever competitive game in our own national stadium? For shame! Brave substitute keeper Przemysław Tytoń came on and miraculously saved the penalty, snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat from the jaws of victory. When the final whistle blew, there were some good and many bad things to say about Poland’s performance, but at least we hadn’t lost and still had it all to play for.
Then came the big one: Russia. To call this the grudge match of the century would not be an overstatement, a fact sadly reflected by the actions of hooligans from both countries before and after the match. But the football itself was thrilling, with the Poles managing to elevate their game against the old oppressor and successfully compete in just about every area of the pitch. When the captain Jakub Błaszczykowski bent in his glorious left-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area to tie the game, high catharsis erupted all over the nation (and all over the Polish diaspora). One might say it was the greatest moment to be a Pole since Lech Wałęsa stormed the walls of the Lenin shipyard, for while the achievements of a constitutional democracy and a burgeoning economy take years to fully realise, it only takes a second to score a goal. And what a goal it was, an eructating lightning strike from the man who had seen his father murder his mother as a child, and what patriotic thunder followed! The game may have ended in a draw, but the manner in which Poland avoided defeat against an indisputably superior Russian team felt almost as good as a victory.
So to Saturday, and the all-or-nothing outing against the Czech Republic, not a great Bohemian vintage, but nevertheless a useful side with excellent pedigree in the Euros (winners as Czechoslovakia in the 1976 and finalists in 1996). No grudges held here, for we get on well with our post-communist neighbours to the south, just a weight of expectation that was almost crushing. Poland needed the win to go through, anything less would see us dumped out of our own competition. And we believed we had reason to be optimistic: sure, the Czechs were probably better on paper, but they had got taken apart by Russia, and if we could give the Russians a game, surely we could get past these Czechs? As the heavens opened over the municipal stadium in Wrocław, the stage was set for history: Poland had never won a game in the European Championship Finals let alone qualified for the knockout stages of the competition.
A couple of hours later it was red and white tears in the rain of course, with Poland out of the Euros and propping up the bottom of their group, with just 2 goals and 2 points from 3 games. The useful Czechs had taken matters into their own hands when they realized they also had to win to progress in light of events in the Russia-Greece game, and nicked a goal on 72 minutes. After dominating the first half in much the same way as we had done against Greece, we were hapless and hopeless in the second, rarely stringing more than a few passes together and not even managing a shot on goal until deep into injury time.
As “that Polish guy” over in England, it was not the loss, but rather the manner of the loss that hurt the most. When the stakes are death or glory, the Poles are supposed to be reliable performers, intimately acquainted with causes Pyrrhic and Quixotic, always eager to charge tanks with their light cavalry. But for some reason, it just didn’t happen against the Czechs, and we got rolled over without so much as a passing volley. Poland had crashed out again, but this time after flattering to deceive, which felt much worse then any of their previous sharp exits from international competitions.
As Euro 2012 moves into its knockout phase and the better teams start to hit their stride, it seems fanciful to think that Poland could ever have mixed it with any of them. Their players are hardly internationally-feared superstars, and tend to ply their trade in the German, Dutch, French, Turkish and Scottish leagues rather than in the Premiership, Serie A or La Liga. But with the much talked-up “Dortmund trio” and their seismic home advantage, we did expect something better this time. Perhaps the coming years will see some growth and development in Poland’s domestic football, at least for Śląsk Wrocław, Lech Poznań and Lechia Gdańsk as they take possession of their shiny new 45,000-seat stadia? Perhaps another golden generation to rival the aging heroes of the 1970s will come through? Or perhaps we won’t see Poland qualify for another international tournament for another 16 years? On the basis of their performance in Euro 2012, one wonders if they would have qualified at all had they not been co-hosts.
But whatever the “biało-czerwoni” manage to achieve in tournaments to come, such far-flung supporters as me fondly hope they will recover the kind of grit and desire that was so much in evidence in the game against Russia and so shockingly absent from the second half against the Czech Republic. Also, until another golden generation appears, they really need to refrain from talking about semi-finals every time they qualify for a tournament. This is something my other team (England) seem to have taken on board, and judging by their results so far, it looks like a little humility is suiting them a lot better.
Until next time, all Poland fans will have to dine out on is that Błaszczykowski wonder strike against Russia, a goal that may not have brought us victory, but achieved something far more important: the restoration of national pride. We’ll just have to forget how cheaply we gave it up again against the Czechs. Which shouldn’t be difficult. Whether you support Poland or England or both, selective amnesia is always the best remedy for agony.Tagged in: euro 2012, football, Poland
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