Grudge match is a genuine must-see
The Russian campers started the pre-Poland v Russia group A match warm-up in earnest at Camp Wok in Warsaw. At 11am on Sunday morning - two days ahead of tonight's kick-off which could determine co-host Poland's Euro 2012 future, the all-day BBQ was ignited and from the motor homes and tents that fly the Russian tricolour, the half-naked party-goers carried a stockpile of vital ingredients to the cooking pit - supplements to boost constitutions ahead of the showdown with their estranged Baltic neighbour: red meat, a few brunch-time beers and two bottles of Jack Daniels. Naturally, one of the happy campers whacked up the Russian techno, causing the Polish staff at this otherwise gentle site to wince.
I observed the proceedings from my corner pitch where I have been poring over maps of Poland and Ukraine, struggling to work out how best to navigate to all the games I have been afforded by Uefa. I have decided to stay in Warsaw for longer than initially planned because the opportunity of observing a Russia-Poland grudge match is a lifetime experience one cannot bear to miss.
Moreover, the Russian team under coach Dick Advocaat are playing jaw-dropping attacking football and it will be thrilling to watch what kind of resistance the Polish squad and the army of Polska faithful can muster. Can the underdogs play to football's romantic strengths and pull off the impossible? I think so, but my Polish hosts are in no mood for whimsical optimism from a wayfaring neutral. Poland midfielder Kamil Grosicki summed up the East European derby succinctly: 'It is one of those games - against Russia or Germany - where, speaking colloquially, you have to leave your guts on the pitch.'
The Polish character has been forged by centuries of upheaval and the result is a fateful outlook, more so among the older generations, who have lived through the post-WWII events up to the fall of communism in 1990. War, holocaust, occupation and partition, Nazi and Stalinist rule, Solidarity and now EU membership have all rolled across this serene, enchanting land which often creaks with melancholy. The Poles by nature are warm, modest, hospitable and political. Most are football-mad. They are also realists and perhaps they are right in believing Franciszek Smuda's men are not up to the challenge of causing an upset.
But being overturned by the Russians on home soil is not the only concern. The footage of Russian fans attacking Polish stewards during the first game against the Czechs has caused alarm. 'I am really worried about violence erupting,' said Lucas, a volunteer at the Fan Zone in central Warsaw. 'There is so much rivalry with Russia, so much - how do you say in English?' Baggage? I offered. 'Yes, this. I really think there will be trouble,' he said.
There is a level of surrealism here in the Polish capital. Fan culture is being encouraged and the massed ranks of jumping Germans punching the air and chanting 'Deutschland! Deutschland!' after their 1-0 win over Portugal drew curious looks from locals. Poland's fate since 1939 simmers away in one's conscience. Warsaw is home to ghostly flashbacks of headlines and TV news and classroom textbooks. Every footstep throws up grit and dust from a tragic age and every tourist attraction is a memorial to the adversities that have befallen this riverside metropolis.
'This is my city and I love it despite all these ugly grey housing blocks,' explained Lucas as we walked through the foyer of 'Stalin's present', the gargantuan Palace of Culture . 'But we have this,' he said as we came out into the street, pointing to the Warsaw Spire, a skyscraper nearing the end of its construction. Warsaw is slowly becoming comfortable with its 21st century confidence, thanks mostly to EU status, and though the level of construction is minuscule compared with the view from my Beijing apartment window, the rising skyline is impressive. Many of the antiquated streets possess the same appeal as London, New York and Berlin with buskers, galleries, boutiques, cafe-bars, brooding students and the palatable purpose of a cultural capital in the remaking.
With the Russian techno creeping up to 11 on the stereo and the burgers and bourbon taking effect at Camp Wok, I left to watch the bronzed Italian and Spanish football gods duel in the alien climate on the chilly Baltic coast, and then like everyone else this side of Prague, I went in search of my Irish heritage in the Fan Zone to watch the bhoys in green take on Croatia. But the Warsaw heavens opened and Irish roots disbursed and emerald dreams of progression were all but washed away. Still, I mused, the rain should douse the BBQ flames and cool a few heads back at a sodden Camp Wok.