Stoic Poland has hit the wall
It’s taken me a week or two to figure out the atmosphere around this tournament. The hosts are extraordinarily nice, the cities are very pleasant and, for the most part, it’s been the smoothest tournament I’ve seen in ages.
And yet, something is off. The Euros are too quiet.
The games have been electric – but after the lights go out, there’s been very little to make fans feel like they are experiencing an event. There is none of the reckless, brilliant support we saw in South Korea for the World Cup, nor much of the sheer glee that accompanied the 2008 edition in Switzerland and Austria.
Here in Poland, there is no critical mass of fan support. Home fans are supporting their team sure enough – but are they watching the rest? No. The Fan Fests across Poland are ghost towns on the nights when Poland is idle. Bars are empty, and last night, had you cared to, you could have had your choice of seats across the city to see France play Ukraine.
On this side of the border, the Euros feel like a tournament that is being staged in a city as opposed to a city that is staging a tournament. The distinction is important: one is an immersive experience, as folks saw in Munich in May; the other is an event at a remove. People in Warsaw seem as they are watching the Euros rather than being the Euros.
In France in 1998, the hosts studiously avoided soccer until quite late in the tournament. That was artifice – it was deemed gauche to descend to the level of the World Cup – and that pose disappeared quite quickly after it became apparent Zinedine Zidane was about to lead the nation to the title. The Pole’s avoidance of the tournament is not a put-on like the French mask of nonchalance – it seems more representative of a mindset that is deeply fatalistic.
Poland is so down on its chances in this tournament to the point that on this game day, national team merchandise is already being marked down in shop windows. Predictions about the team sit on a range that starts with glum and rarely inches past grim. Before the team’s 1-1 draw with Russia – a fine result – fans dressed in full red and white somberly, telling me not only that the side would lose, but how badly.
There’s something to be said for the stolid clear-eyed look — in contrast with co-host Ukraine, whose coach Oleg Blokhin says he is dealing with fans who “want to shoot the players” every time they lose. But there’s also a sense of exhaustion that seems to hang over the tournament – and worries about what comes next.
A lot of this is due to the woeful economy across Europe – many fans simply couldn’t afford to travel here in the face of outrageous pre-tournament lodging costs. Part of it is due to the nation’s stoic character.
But the biggest part is that what more than one person here has told me: they are simply worn out. It has been a three-year scramble to get this thing up and running, and even the men behind the bid concede they are worried about what happens when the tent packs up.
What is this country getting, exactly, for the $20 billion it spent? No one’s quite sure, and a lot of people are worried that that money will not return in the form of tourists next summer. And what about the facilities? Teams here only draw about 8-10,000 fans a game. What do you do with a 50,000-seat stadium?
The final thing few seem to want to point out is that while people here love soccer, they despise many of the people that surround the sport. Legia Warsaw’s hordes are not popular in this city, and with good reason. The sight of hooligans battling hooligans Tuesday was exactly the type of thing that makes the average Pole wonder if the Euros are really worth it.
The result is that many seem to be finding it hard to fully embrace a tournament they’ve paid for. This is a shame: those of us who made the trek have found a country with a lot to offer. The art, the food, the culture and people are exquisite, the tournament has been a thrill on the field. At least – that’s how I see it. I wish our hosts could as well.