Thursday, June 28, 2012
Rzeszow – Warsaw
The five-hour bus from Rzeszow to Warsaw is full of people either catching flights from the capital’s international airport or travelling up to Warsaw for tonight’s semi between Italy and Germany. I am very happy to have a ticket for this match and to meet up with my German friends, Philip Lahm and Zen Meister, but Warsaw is also my exit point home from the Euros.
I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Warsaw and instantly find the human traffic, noisy construction sites and concrete all a bit overwhelming. Only London, Paris and Frankfurt have more high rise buildings than Warsaw amongst the EU countries. Zen Meister has booked me a place in the same hostel as him and his mates. I just really hope it’s not out in some far flung suburb of this huge city of nearly 2 million.
German efficiency! I don’t know how he’s pulled this off at such short notice but Zen Meister has managed to book us the most centrally located hostel in all of Warsaw. Oki Doki Hostel is also homely, friendly and reasonably priced, even for such an auspicious day as the Euro 2012 semi-final.
I am so relieved to find the hostel without having to trudge off to the outer limits of Warsaw and instantly find Philip Lahm and Zen Meister chilling in the hostel bar. They are top lads and certainly added to the fun when we met them in Lviv three weeks ago. Or was that three months ago? They drove across from Frankfurt with two mates last night, taking around 10 hours for the journey here. Two more of their mates are due in on the express train from Berlin later this afternoon.
So done in am I by it all that I don’t venture more than 100 yards from the hostel all day and in the late afternoon with all six of the German crew having arrived we are content to enjoy pre-match beers in the hostel bar and then taxi it across the Wisla and down to the stadium. If you have a match day ticket then public transport is free during the Euros. However, perhaps it is age but, Zen Meister and I agree that a few zloty for a taxi is well worth the investment on this occasion.
I always find the knock-out stages of football tournaments a curious affair. Most of the real fans have long since returned home and been replaced by a new breed of fan who flies out at extortionate prices for the big ticket games. To be fair, Germany have their usual keeping-it-real horde of thousands but the Italian support is nothing short of pathetic considering this is a Euro semi.
Warsaw National Stadium is like a city within a city; an enormous space ship that has entered Earth’s atmosphere and plonked itself down in the middle of the Polish capital. Within its circumference steep concrete staircases, lifts and escalators transport football fans to each of its four tiers. It might only seat 55,000 spectators but I am struggling to think of another stadium that feels so vast within its interior. You could imagine a kid getting lost in here and not getting found for another week.
Three facts to consider for those – me included – who wrote off Italy from the very start of this tournament:
- Prandelli is undefeated in competitive internationals, recording nine wins and five draws to date.
- The Azzuri finished with the best defensive record across the nine qualifying groups, conceding only two goals.
- Italy have never lost to either Germany or West Germany in a competitive fixture…
…no wonder nearly all of my German friends seriously think they will lose tonight’s match.
Star faces in the press zone include Arsene Wenger, working for Eurosport and Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who look like a couple of naughty schoolboys chuckling over text messages they’ve received.
Quick observations about the early exchanges in the Italy v Germany match: Balotelli’s and Cassano’s movement is causing the Germans big problems Gomez looks too isolated; Ozil looks underutilized.
When Balotelli puts the Italians 2-0 up with his brilliant strike after awful defending from the Germans, a stunned roar goes up around the stadium. Most Poles seem to be supporting the Italians, but they can’t quite believe the Azzuri have put the Germans to the sword. Truthfully, the Germans don’t get much luck in the early exchanges but Pirlo, Buffon, Cassano and Balotelli are the four stand-out players on the pitch with the normally brilliant Ozil deteriorating from running the German show to not being able to hit an accurate pass. Clearly, Loew shouldn’t have stuck with Podolski whose best days seem to be behind him, while Schweinsteiger is clearly still struggling with injury. At 2-0 Italy look like they might extend their lead to three or four but a last minute penalty for Germany, dispatched by Ozil, sets up a frenetic last few minutes of injury time. Each time the ball is down the Italian end, the German keeper, Manuel Neuer, comes sprinting out of his box and downfield in search of an equaliser. At one point he is even forced into a defensive clearing header on the half-way line as Italy threaten to break away and score in an unguarded net, ice hockey style. It is too little too late however, as Balotelli sprints over too hug his mother in the crowd and Buffon punches the air in joy. Italy are in the Euro 2012 final and thoroughly deserve to be there.
I take a final long glance around the stadium. This is the end of Euro 2012 for me. I no longer have the time, cash, transport options or energy to travel back to Kyiv for the final. After seven matches at Euro 2012 I will be content to watch the final down the local pub and return to the comfort of my own bed afterwards. It has been a fantastic adventure. All that remains now is to enjoy a commiserating beer with my German friends and to get myself out of Poland tomorrow.
After half an hour trying to hail taxis, made a little more difficult by one of the lads having a wheelchair, we get back to the hostel. All of the German lads are gutted but all concede that the better side won on the night. Previous plans to go clubbing have been abandoned and I sit up for an hour with Zen Meister discussing football and, more importantly, the meaning of life. We’ve both had a fantastic time at this tournament. When you think of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the fun we’ve had, you have to conclude that yes, football is more than a game.