Playing a blinder against the bigots
The debate over nationalism, racism and football hooliganism, the touchpaper topics overshadowing the Euros, sizzled at Camp Wok before the much anticipated opening match in Warsaw. This wooded, gentrified camping site which serves as the SCMP HQ has now been invaded by Polish, German and English-cum-Irish-cum-Scottish fans - 11 in total.
After a football match two of the English Londoners, Tom, who is in insurance, and Owen, a doctor who runs desert marathons including the Gobi, struggled over a few beers with their cultural identities and wrestled with the confused cocktail of shame, fear, immense pride and passion that English fans carry with them.
'My parents are Irish, I support Arsenal and back England at rugby, but with football it's Ireland,' says Tom. 'I am of Scottish and Canadian heritage and though I was born Scotland, I am English, but I struggle to support England,' says Owen.
'I am English, I support England but there was no way I was going to Ukraine. Wearing this shirt, it would mean curtains,' says Barry, sporting a red Three Lions shirt with Rooney written on the back.
This group of late 20s, early 30s professionals, startled by the threats of racism and hooliganism, have decided against heading farther south and instead will watch Ireland v Croatia in Poznan. They will catch other matches in the Fan Zones, the successful areas first introduced by the Germans at the 2006 World Cup.
'We're off to Lviv to watch Germany v Portugal,' says Stephan, a train driver from Schalke and a Schalke 04 supporter - and who for reasons lost in translation was wearing a Glasgow Rangers baseball cap. 'Sure we are concerned with what we have heard about the racist and bad fans there, but we are here to support our team and have fun like everyone else.'
Ryba (aka Fishman) and Leo 'The Lion' - two Polish fans from Szczecin - joined us in the great debate. 'We welcome everyone. I have to admit we have a great rivalry with Russia, and that is the big game for us, but we are not holding grudges,' said Fishman, who I am sure slipped in a cheeky wink.
Every game for the host nations is a potential flashpoint given Eastern Europe's tumultuous modern history. Barry blushed when he mentioned, with the Germans listening, the England team had, like the Italians, visited Auschwitz, and lowered his voice. We cannot deny our nations' past and I recited to the table a bit of the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson - The Charge of the Light Brigade - about the British army in the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, and said if I were a Ukrainian fan I'd be mightily tempted to jokingly remind the English of that disastrous campaign.
A few beers later, Stephan was wearing Fishman's T-shirt, Polish arms were being slung round German shoulders and glasses clinked. This is what Uefa and the governments of Poland and the Ukraine want to see - as do the vast majority of the citizens here: unity through football, half-sozzled intellectual banter and belly laughs.
One initiative is the Exchange Your Shirt campaign, part of Uefa's Respect drive, a social responsibility programme which aims to support local communities, tackle social issues and 'work towards unity across gender, race, religion and ability'. Encouraging intercultural dialogue between fans and the host cities is paramount, says the mission statement, as is combating racism, the top agenda item at the pre-tournament press conference.
The gathering of Uefa's head table and the international media's finest was dominated by a net full of negatives - anti-Semitism and racism, human rights, price gouging and substandard facilities, match-fixing and bribes, poor transport and lousy roads, political snubs and stay-away fans.
The vast majority of Poles and Ukrainians have been shocked and shamed by claims they live in racist societies. The Poles in Camp Wok were embarrassed by a BBC Panorama programme that exposed the neo-Nazis on the terraces of their football stadiums. They said they now have to fight to change the views of the abhorrent minority.
Walking around the National Stadium hours before kick-off, I saw an ethnic mix worthy of world cities such as New York and London - and all thanks to football. Warsaw is more cosmopolitan in look and feel than Beijing, my adopted home. I believe Uefa has scored a blinder by bringing the Euros to the Ukraine and Poland, as one of the legacies will be the public backlash against the small-minded few who use football as a vehicle to peddle their hate.
Shining football's blinding light on racism and exposing it is the best way to erase the ignorance, overhaul the hate and turn it into tolerance and understanding, as what happened in English stadiums where eradicating race-haters took a decade and more. I'll bet my cherished Beijing Guoan shirt on it.