Nerves fray and cracks appear in Polish generosity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Gifting the Greeks a bailout in the opening game induced a new gait in the Polska faithful as they exited the National Stadium and made their way over the Poniatowski Bridge to the Fan Zone - the Warsaw Wobble.

Heads bowed, the deflation after the cracking inaugural 90 minutes enveloped the hoarse Polish With flags and scarves around necks and wrists hanging limp, they wore their expressions not only on their faces but in their shoes, too, trudging one heavy foot after another in a shuffling lament for what should have been: three points and the perfect start to their tournament.

The long hike was further saddened by the haunting Chopin notes that rung on in the ears long after pianist Adam Gyorgy started the proceedings during the short and sweet opening ceremony, the maestro's mazurka blended into Slavic techno for the finale.

What should have been their easiest game in group A, and with 56,800 scarf-whirring fans generating enough breeze to sail their team up and down the Vistula, Franciszek Smuda's men suffered an aberration worthy of inclusion in an Anton Chekov tragedy and gifted the Greeks an equaliser - and nearly credited them the match.

The writer of the 'The Greek Party is Here' banner strung out on the upper tier had missed out a crucial word - 'Spoiler', and had the 2004 Euro champions taken the stimulus package offered to them through a penalty courtesy of Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny's kamikaze challenge on Dimitris Salpingidis, they would have boosted their chances of long-term survival in the premier European competition.

Giorgos Karagounis failed to bank the bullion, however, and so squandered an unlikely win - not that the Greek fans, many of whom found the temperature inside the enclosed arena to their Mediterranean liking and stripped off their tops, were complaining. They banged their drums and rejoiced long after the final whistle, while Polish thoughts further soured as they watched the Russian bears' emphatic devouring of the Czechs.

'We had to beat the Greeks, that was our easiest game. Now look at what we face,' says one Polska fan as Russia's Alan Dzagoev continued his sumptuous meal of the Czech defence on the screen before us.

The heavens had opened on Warsaw an hour before the game, soaking the thousands who had flocked to the Fan Zone.

Inside the stadium, the downpour hammered down in silence on the partly transparent retractable roof, under which the Polish tirelessly sang the national anthem Mazurek D?browskiego - 'Poland is not yet lost'. But the rising damp spread in the second half and the Greeks muted the patriotism.

I headed back to my home-from-Beijing-home, the aptly named Cam Wok, and found my usual bus stop closed. I sought out a local to help find the substitute stop but in the evening gloaming I instead found the nastiest Pole this south side of the Vistula. He grabbed my press card, looking for my cultural identity and, unable to read English, he chucked it in my face and started shooing me away with his hands. He was loaded with vodka and frustration after all the hype and expectations, a heady cocktail.

I walked away and was unexpectedly taken aback by the mood change among some of the loitering, brooding fans. For the first time since my arrival here, during which every Pole I had met had been beyond friendly and helpful, I felt a twinge of fear - more so as I was carrying in my backpack my vital organs: laptop, iPad, iPhone, wallet, Land Rover keys, passport and photos of my son.

I sought out two volunteers who pointed me in the right direction. On the way I stopped for a curry which was being served on the street by the Nepalese employees of the 'Little Hut Indian-Polish Restaurant'.

Wearing a red and white afro novelty wig and with miniature Polish flags painted on his cheeks, owner Kamal was doing a roaring trade. He said he had been in Poland for six years. 'The Poles are fine once they get to know you. You have to understand their history. They are wary of outsiders at first, but once they find out who you are, they are great,' he says. 'Sure, there is some racism the further east you go.' I told Kamal I was planning to head to Ukraine and his eyes bulged. 'Oh, man,' he says. 'Ukraine is a different story.'

At the bus stop I met three Greek fans. 'I don't feel safe here,' says one. 'A Polish guy ripped away and stole my Greek flag which was hanging around my neck.' His mate was more philosophical. 'The guys can be pretty scary when they are drunk but the Polish women have been blessed by the Gods,' he says.

As we waited for our respective buses we chatted about Greek debt and the euro, the appalling performance by forward Giorgos Samaras and the might of the German squad, who we all agreed will likely reign over Europe come July 1. And like Uefa's response to the racist incident at the Dutch training camp earlier in the day, we put our unnerving experiences down to isolated incidents which you can witness at any football match, anywhere.

Back at Camp Wok, several of my fellow Pole campers were nursing their disappointment. Believe in the lines of your national anthem, I offered - 'Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live. What the alien force has taken from us, we shall retrieve with a sabre.'

'Maybe,' says fan Maciej, utterly unconvinced. The other Poles nodded in agreement and some sauntered off to their campers vans, throwing Warsaw Wobble shadows across the camp.