The Euro 2012 experience: don’t lose faith in the game just yet
It is hard to pinpoint one particular chant I enjoyed more than any other out in Gdańskand, Poznań. There were the formulaic ones (Stand Up for the Boys in Green; Sit Down for the Boys in Green; Shoes Off for the Boys in Green), the ridiculous ones (We All Dream of a Team of Gary Breens), the self-depreciating ones (The Dutch are Worse Than Us; The Groups Are Upside Down), the random 1981 hits (Depeche Mode – Just Can’t Get Enough), and the political ones (Merkel Thinks We’re Working; There’s only one Angela Merkel / She gave us some cash / We’re on the lash / Walking in a Merkel wonderland). However, it is somewhat easier to pinpoint my favourite overall moment. In the early hours of the morning following Ireland’s game against Italy, the Boys in Green and assorted others in Poznań town square during their final sing song erupted into an extended chorus of Polska Biało-Czerwoni – this was the anthem that Polish fans had been singing all week, along the way slowly but surely teaching the Irish fans the words, who by June 18th had seemingly improved their pronunciation to a more than satisfactory standard.
As an Irish Pole myself, this was naturally a moving and significant moment, encapsulating the mutual affection that had been exchanged between the two sets of supporters over the previous week and a half, the Irish lavishly praising the Poles as hosts and the Poles fully enamoured with the Irish as visitors. But it was also significant to me as a football fan, as it restored my faith in the game as a force for positivity and good as opposed to a source of negativity and hatred. Here I was witnessing two groups of supporters, who previously had no real reason to even consider each other’s existence, singing each others songs, exchanging scarves, familiarising each other with their customs and complimenting their counterparts’ personalities and national characteristics.
It is fair to say that many aspects of football have rendered me somewhat disillusioned in recent years. Be it my own club side producing some of the worst football I’ve ever seen (we shan’t go into that here), the dominance of finance within the narrative of the game to increasingly absurd levels, the miserable pettiness of our national press, the blasé nature of the global ruling elite’s corruption, or even just the tweets of Joey Barton – all contribute to a general condition of the game which can only be described as distasteful.
In reality, none of the above can fully push you away from football – in my case, it doesn’t come close to making me switch off Super Sunday despite all my supposed moral objections. When Sergio Agüero scored against Queens Park Rangers in May, I doubt few of us considered at that moment the objectionable nature of a foreign-backed super rich club propelling itself up the table. Instead, we appreciated the unadulterated drama of live sport at its most absurd as the fate of a 38-game season (3420 minutes + stoppage time) was determined by one single kick of the ball in its desperate last gasps. Increasingly uncompetitive our domestic game may be, but that is far from mutually exclusive to it being continuously entertaining.
But more importantly, neither the distorted or uncompetitive nature of the league table nor the prevalence of imbeciles permeating almost every levels of the game can detract from what is often the greatest aspect of football: the atmosphere and experience of a live occasion. And this is where Euro 2012 excelled itself above all previous experiences.
For it was in Poland my eyes were opened. For the first time, I was able to appreciate that fans of opposing teams needn’t view each other through the narrow prism of rivalry, animosity or hatred. The host fans, eager to please and to repudiate their portrayal in the BBC’s highly selective Panorama documentary and media coverage elsewhere, went to great lengths to ensure the legions of Irish, Spanish, Italians, Croats fans and whomever else were made to feel at home. The travelling Irish contingent, regardless of what Roy Keane had to say, were determined only to have a good time irrespective of the exploits of their somewhat mismatched football side – and fun over here did not involve fights.
In fact, with the exception of the odd Irishman berating another for losing the hostel key, I cannot recall witnessing a single argument out in Poland, never mind physical violence. Mutual respect prevailed to the extent that, even if there were some local hooligans who fancied a fight they decided not to bother the tourists. And it is in this amicable atmosphere that the Irish sang the Polish unofficial team anthem long into the night, as flags were produced thanking the hosts in their native tongue:
And this invoked in me a reflection upon the club experience. As we enjoyed a few beers ahead of an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Gdańsk fan zone on the day of the Poland – Czech Republic game, a Polish friend bemoaned a supporter standing nearby who was singing derogatory songs towards Lechia Gdańsk’s nearby rivals Arka Gdynia.
He expressed not only his distaste for the fact that he had chosen a day of otherwise national unity to express a local petty feud, but also explained that his ambivalence towards the Polish domestic game was a result of the fans being overly-concerned with expressing their negative feelings towards the opposition than those of positivity to their own side.
It was at this stage the realisation hit me that in my whole time in Poland, I had not heard any ‘negative’ chants whatsoever – no one was a wanker, no teams were to be shit on, no one danced and celebrated in delight at the misfortunate of others. Among the Irish, there wasn’t even a smidge of anti-English sentiment directed at myself or in general, bar the odd chorus of Terry is a Racist (NB: Legally Terry is not a racist). Euro 2012 had become a getaway not just from everyday life, but also from the animosity and squabbling childishness of supporting a club side.
And so it was with a heavy heart that I returned to read the familiar childish squabbles between club fans on the internet. I should point out that I am not pining for some kind of hippie existence where Manchester United fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and Sunderland fans mingle with Geordies in the Gallowgate End. Nor do I wish to see an end to songs about the failures of your rivals, or insults aimed at opposition players. Rivalry is naturally an important aspect in football the world over, and sometime an added extra bit of needle can do wonders for an atmosphere.
But equally, it would be desirable for hatred not to define the supporter experience in club football to the extent it does now – away fans shouldn’t be intimidated into hiding their colours; fans shouldn’t feel the need to sing derogatory songs about their rivals in a match that doesn’t remotely involve them; opposition players shouldn’t necessarily be labelled a c**t unless they have first done something that actually warrants such a label.
I am aware that some people would dismiss such suggestions with the assertion that these examples are ‘what football is all about.’ Having experienced the other side of the coin, I would beg to differ – the scenes I witnessed in Gdańsk and Poznań are what football is, and can be, truly all about: an occasion of colour, respect, joy and celebration.