Cinematic tone headlines opening day
An estimated half million people flooded the streets in the Polish capital tonight. Public transport collapsed. Families walked along the tram lines, the power overhead turned off. No one had ever seen anything like it here in the Warsaw: a peaceful crowd filing home in a city paralyzed by soccer.
Poland secured a vital draw tonight as they kicked off the European Championships in dramatic fashion. This game will not be remembered for the soccer – it was pedestrian and clumsy. It will be remembered for the two red cards, a substitute goalkeeper who saved a penalty and a peach of a goal from starlet Robert Lewandowski.
It will also be remembered for the cinematic tone that suffused the day.
Six hours before kickoff, Warsaw was in full voice and the Fan Festival was overfilled. Four hours before kickoff, a city named for a mermaid was drenched by a stinging downpour. Two hours before, the sun came out and baked the top of the National Stadium’s retractable roof.
So when the game began, it was a humid, sweltering, swinging cauldron, drenched in sweat and plastered in red and white. To end as it did, with a human chain reaching from the river to downtown, was a scene that would make Bollywood blush.
It was no movie. The “special effects” – that was the people of Poland. They had been buffeted by a week that has seen an ugly, inexcusable incident of racist taunting in Krakow. They had harbored serious doubts over the ability of their team, which truly only comprises four men, one of whom is now suspended for a vital game against Russia.
Poland tonight desperately wanted not to be embarrassed in the international spotlight. They just wanted to celebrate, for once.
They did, and how.
Poland was roaring from the kickoff and they got their reward only 17 minutes in. Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski torched Jose Holebas to serve an inch-perfect cross that keeper Kostas Chalkias could only flap at. Robert Lewandowski made no mistake, heading the ball firmly into the turf and into the net.
The Greeks proceeded to come further undone when Sokratis Papastathopoulos was ejected in the first half after collecting two marginal yellow cards. Sokratis is not the villain; that would be Carlos Velasco Carballo, a fussy Spanish referee who overdid matters. International tournaments are always called closely, but one looked to see if the official was twirling a mustache when he went to his back pocket.
But things changed after the break and the introduction of Dimitris Salpingidis. Suddenly, the ten-man Greeks looked fluid and lively and the Poles looked overwhelmed by the occasion. The chants became as heavy as air, and the expectations seemed to crush the hosts. Lewandowski disappeared, and Kuba declined.
Salpingidis would quickly level matters and then take the hosts to the brink of disaster when keeper Wojciech Szczesny clumsily tripped him up to give the Greeks a penalty kick and the Arsenal goalkeeper an early shower. Cameras showed him in the locker room, riveted to a TV set as Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis stepped to the spot. Sub Przemyslaw Tyton put on his gloves and marched to the spot.
He saved the penalty, and the game.
The Poles now have a big task ahead of them: they face their archenemies, Russia, in what is now a pivotal game on June 12. That atmosphere may not be as welcoming: Russian fans are planning to demonstrate here on the day of the game; Polish fans are planning their own march. Many here fear conflict is inevitable. But few will be staying home.
There will be those who will complain tonight. Some had to walk from the stadium. Maybe they had to wait a little longer for a bus. Perhaps it wasn’t quite like London or Munich, or all the places European soccer usually wants to stick games.
Don’t believe them. Think instead of walking in a crowd in the summer sunlight, basking in that most unsatisfying yet fairest result in all of sport.
A half million people celebrated a tie.