A Polish wedding turns into a wake
with Peter Simpson
Half of the happy couple's relatives had slipped away from a wedding reception to crash the small Warsaw bar to cheer on Polska. 'Wszystko jest mozliwe,' said one suited guest without introduction. 'That means 'anything is possible' in Polish,' said Milcotaj as all sorts of weird things were happening across town - the Greeks were beating the mighty Russians. 'We have to win,' he said in between gulps of beer, the truth serum doing its job. The fates turned their back on the co-hosts, and the wheel of Fortuna, the equivalent of the Greek goddess of fortune, whirring away a few hundred kilometres away in the Municipal Stadium of Wroclaw, slammed the gear shift into reverse and screeched all the way back to 2004.
Czech Petr Jiracek pounced and filled 38,000,000 pairs of tear ducts to bursting, with similar dystopia being heaped on Polish expats across the world, from Hong Kong to Honduras. The wedding party left the bar as funeral mourners. 'Actually, we Polish knew this was going to happen. We were not good enough from the start,' said the weary Milcotaj. It takes a single meek Pole with a half-mast tie and crumpled suit to express the fatalistic acceptance of a nation.
But Franciszek Smuda's men and his 12th man - the awe-inducing vocal supporters - were good enough. They just failed to tuck away the divine gifts offered during the first half. But when the gods, or technocrats from Brussels for that matter, come bearing alms the Greeks snatch it gratefully, as they did eight years ago against all odds. The weakest team in the group knocked out the most powerful, Russia, and they dismissed the most humble in the process, Poland.
The surprise departure of Russia was cold comfort. We stood in silence, looking into beer glasses for solace and finally did what Athenians of yore would have done and pondered the strangeness of football and all that it throws at mere mortals, be them Poles, Russians, Greeks - and even the bride, who no doubt was wondering why half the guests had suddenly disappeared and those that remained wept. 'No, her husband did not come,' assured Milcotaj.
Aside from the hooligan elements, both teams enthralled during their crunch game and, with football in their genes, the hosts will ensure the carousel keeps merrily turning during the knockout stages.
While issuing tributes and respect to the fallen and hailing the success of the victorious, it's time to highlight an important work of Uefa's Respect Campaign - the buzz word of the tournament that's even sewn into the footballers' jerseys.
The Respect Campaign was launched at the pre-tournament press conference by Uefa president Michel Platini, Uefa chief refereeing officer Italian Pierluigi Collina and Dutch AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf. That press conference was dominated by the racism row and Uefa's decision to allow Poland and Ukraine to host the tournament, accusations which Platini defended as poorly as you'd expect from a goal-scoring dynamo forced to play himself out of an uncomfortable decision. Collina spent his time explaining what would happen if a player took it upon himself to protest any moronic racist chanting by walking off the pitch. It was left to Seedorf to do the honours and speak volumes over the racism din about this important part of Euro 2012.
'Football today, more than ever, needs a strong reminder that everyone is equal on and off the pitch, regardless of their race, religion, skin colour or gender. It is differences in football that make our game so unique and this is what the campaign is all about,' he said.
Four social projects have been launched with financial backing from Uefa totalling Euro3 million (HK$29 million) - Respect Diversity, Respect Fan Culture, Respect Inclusion and Respect Your Health.
Uefa partner Fare (Football Against Racism in Europe) and its host nations network organisation, Never Again, have monitors at all matches to look out for racist banners and listen out for - and then spot - the venomous few who dare open their mouths. More than 80,000 police and stewards in the host countries have received anti-discrimination training.
Full marks to the spotters, who are carrying out their distasteful job with aplomb. Uefa has opened disciplinary proceedings against Croatia over 'the setting-off and throwing of fireworks, and the improper conduct of supporters', including racist chants and the displaying of racist symbols. How depressing, but there is something to cheer. Europe - especially eastern Europe - is learning fast how to combat racism in the game and t because of the tournament the need to stamp it out is being fast-tracked to the forefront of consciences. Now, that deserves respect.