Poland’s beautiful game overshadowed by hooligans

First, the game stats. The score, Poland 1, Russia 1.

Poland’s attempts on goal, 15. Attempts on-target, 9. Russia’s attempts on goal, 7. On-target, 3. In specifics, one breathtaking goal by Poland. In general, long periods of fine, flowing soccer, a true representation of Poland’s tactics and determination. Russia had intermittent periods of grace and beauty but ran out of steam in an alarming manner in the last twenty minutes. The atmosphere was electric. All in all, a terrific game.

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Poland's Jakub Blaszczykowski celebrates his scoring during their Group A Euro 2012 soccer match against Russia at the National stadium in Warsaw, June 12, 2012. Poland's Jakub Blaszczykowski celebrates his scoring during their Group A Euro 2012 soccer match against Russia at the National stadium in Warsaw, June 12, 2012. REUTERS


Win or it’s Czech mate for Poland

Yes, there was a riot and scuffles on the streets of Warsaw before the game. And there was a massive, intimidating riot police presence after the game.

But those events bracketed a game of soccer.

It’s essential to talk about the soccer first. Because if it’s not moronic expressions of racial hatred that bedevil this tournament, it’s politics. And if it’s not politics, it’s history.

History, where old hatreds lurk, hangs heavily over this part of Europe. The Euro tournament, like the Euro currency and the EU itself, is an attempt at stepping forward, away from the past, another act of awakening from the nightmare of two world wars and decades of Cold War politics.

Not everyone sees it that way. For instance – a German referee in charge of a game between Poland and Russia. Oh, boy, think of the implications.

On Tuesday, in terms of the non-soccer perception, maybe this became “The Ugly Euro tournament” the one weighed down by accusations, events, and incidents that did not take place on the field. Riots on the streets of Warsaw. Insults thrown between Russia’s supporters and local Poles, leading to fighting and injuries.

It happened but there is over-emphasis on events merely attendant to the games. Television and, increasingly, online media, have a riot-porn addiction. Images that feed knee-jerk responses get priority. Context is gone.

Here’s context. Late on Tuesday afternoon thousands of people gathered in central Warsaw, in good cheer, Poles and Russians alike, to watch the game on giant screens or on TV in bars where the mood was entirely good humoured. I saw it myself. The lighthearted joshing between Poles and a group of Russians – middle-aged men with their sons – without a hint of animosity. I also saw Russian fans entering the stadium in outfits that mocked the Soviet Union past. Their sense of humour was admirable. The idiots who fought with some Poland supporters got the attention.

The game deserved massive attention. Poland’s tie with Greece last Thursday was a good result but it was one of those ties that felt like a defeat. That made the game against Russia matter a lot – in soccer terms and in the pure, non-political, non-historical logic of the sport and the tournament. One point for a draw, three for a win. That’s it.

Poland needed a victory over Russia that seemed to crush the Czech Republic with ease in its own opening game. A draw would keep Poland’s hopes alive.

Poland began well, using the same formation that had worked well against Greece but, admittedly, had failed to produce that cutting edge of scoring. Everything depended on Lewandowski, the lone striker up front, with three midfielders attempting to supply him with the ball constantly. They did, but usually failed to match his pace and too many excellent chances came to nothing. Then came a bit of minor Russian trickery. A free-kick taken by Andriy Arshavin was met by Alan Dzagoev, the most hyped young Russian player in years, who merely slipped by defender Lukasz Piszczek to head past keeper Przemyslaw Tyton. It was an easy-peasy goal, the result of a moment of inattention by Poland.

But it made the game even more alive and raw. Only passion matched by skill would save Poland, and both were delivered in the second half, with aplomb. Time after time they surged forward. And the needed goal, when it came, was a thing of true beauty.

Poland was using possession of the ball with new alertness and when the ball came to Piszczek, an inspired pass to Blaszczykowski, Poland’s inspirational and level-headed captain, allowed for a surging individual run toward goal. Would he do it? Yes he did. A stunning shot with his left foot left Russian goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev merely gaping at the ball in the back of the net.

That settled it and it felt like a just result. Both teams tired, both teams knew there was a point for a tie and three for a win. Each had another game to play.

This Group A isn’t settled. Poland can best the Czech Republic. Greece is capable of stifling a Russian team that can’t seem to last the full 90 minutes in first gear.

Wednesday brings a juicy encounter. Germany plays the Netherlands. Both would be considered favourites, behind Spain, to win the tournament. At some point during the game, the Dutch fans might chant what translates as, “Give us back our bikes.” It’s a reference to the Dutch grudge that retreating German soldiers in the Second World War grabbed Dutch bikes to cycle frantically back to Germany.

But, never mind that. The game matters more, the skills of today’s players matter more. The reachable beauty of the game, on the day, matters more than the weight of history.

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