Hard not to cheer for the hosts with the most

Wed, Jun 13, 2012, 01:00

LETTER FROM SOPOT: As Europe gathers in Sopot it was difficult not to become Polish for the night

SOPOT, LIKE every town and city in Poland on Russia day, is brimming with patriotic fervour tonight. On most June evenings, this coastal town is just a pleasure dome for holiday makers. But tonight, all eyes are riveted to Poland versus Russia. Television screens are everywhere. If you remember Irish towns during Italia ’90 or Japan and Korea 2002, you have the idea. And now, guests from all countries are keeping fingers crossed for the hosts.

Everyone is here. The Dutch are here. There are several representatives from Russia, keeping the lowest profile of any Russian since Leon Trotsky was knocking around Mexico. The Irish are, of course, here. You’ll never beat them, or so they say.

There are Spaniards in Sopot too. At tea time, the last of España’s defiantly carefree are in tipsy mood outside the Max Cocktail Bar. If and when the accountants in Brussels get around to pinpointing where the last of Spain’s dwindling resources finished up, there is a good chance that they will trace a considerable percentage of the Spanish reserve to the very cash register where Max’s charming barkeep was happily supplying pina coladas to his sombrero-bedecked guests.

The Spaniards, wouldn’t you know, carried a football with them.

They had the mood of men who were content to let this tournament take them wherever it wished, which for the immediate time meant hanging around in Sopot to kick some Irish ass.

In between downing the fruitiest cocktails seen in public since Del Trotter was a household name, the Spanish boys treated the other Europeans to an impromptu skills session with their football.

It should be noted that the Spaniards were a tad unsteady on their feet at this stage. But when they started kicking the football, something happened. You could say it was something magical. Equally, you could say it was something incredibly annoying. Either way, once they started communicating in the language of football, they turned into a combination of Fred Astaire and Andres Iniesta. No matter where you came from, the crap they were pulling with the football amounted to showing off. I’m not sure we could do it.

By ‘we’, I mean the Irish football team.

Dutch men bedecked in their vivid orange shirts bearing the names of masters past scowled as they walked past the exhibition. Polish suedeheads who were only marginally less intimidating than the pitbull dogs they were taking for an evening stroll growled in tandem with their pets.

An Irish contingent, buoyed by an afternoon brew or two, gamely tried to negotiate a five-a-side. Thankfully, it never took off: we could never hope to beat Spain twice in a week. By compromise, they sang an international version of Olé, Olé, Olé etc.

All the time, the night was tilting irrevocably towards a showdown between the Poles and the Russians. This was the game that would make or break the championships for the host nation. After Monday night’s glittering display by Ukraine, it was clear that for the advance publicity, the ‘other’ hosts might end up enjoying the tournament more. And it was also clear that this match was as important to the Polish people as playing England in Stuttgart was to the Irish back in 1988.

“There is not a good relationship,” was the diplomatic summary given by Marcus, who is officially the concierge in the good old hotel Haffner but, like all good hotel front men, is in fact an expert solver of problems domestic and panoramic. Poland would do well if Marcus was fronting the national Polish welcome as well as the Haffner’s.

He is ferociously bright, multi-lingual, helpful to a fault and truly keen to convince all guests that Poland is a country that international visitors should frequent even when their football team is not playing here.

He was really looking forward to the game, and his gripe with Russia was not so much based on the historical grievances between the nations as the television footage which showed Russian fans giving a steward a beating on the opening night of the championships.

He was off work for the night and intended meeting up with friends to watch the game in one of their homes and have a few beers. But not too many, he vowed, because he was back in the Haffner at seven in the morning. “I work all the hours,” he smiled.

Marcus said he feared that there would be reprisals in Warsaw if – as he also feared – the Russians won the match. It wasn’t that he thought all Russians were hooligans. But he made the valid point that the few seconds of footage had been witnessed by millions and would percolate tension and bad feeling and that in any country, there were always a few fools willing to make capital of episodes like this.

By seven o’clock, his darker fears were beginning to be realised as images and reports of crowd trouble and riot police filtered through from Warsaw. As ever, if football offers an absurdly basic way for young men to bridge language barriers and discover immediate common ground, it also acts as an oblique mirror through which generations of resentments and prejudices flare into spontaneous bursts of violence in pretty city squares where stand monuments to long-perished young men who fought for real causes.

By nine o’clock, every bar and restaurant on Monte Cassino Street, shouts and rises in unison when Poland scores a goal followed by a universal groan when it is ruled offside. Shirt colours don’t matter right now.

F**k it, they seem to be saying.

Tonight, we are Polish to the last.

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