Local Beer, Local Soccer - Futbol from the Land of Dragons and Mermaids: Poland
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed
By Marek Kurylko
Don’t let the mystical title fool you, despite dragons and mermaids being symbols of the two cities we visited, a special kind of magic has been in full effect in Poland since June 8th when the European Championships kicked off in Warsaw. It was evident from that first match, when Poland drew 1-1 with Greece and 100,000+ people crammed into the Polish capital’s Fan Zone that the next 24 days were going to be special for both the country and its international visitors. Full disclosure – before going any further, I’ll tell you that I’m of 100% Polish descent (1st generation American) and that I spent a majority of my childhood summers visiting my family who reside there. If any of that results in a bias, I apologize. It should also be noted that, while I understand this Euro tournament is being co-hosted by Ukraine, my focus will be on the experiences that my girlfriend and I had while visiting Krakow and Warsaw in Poland.
This trip has been in the planning stages for me since 2007 when the UEFA Executive Committee named Poland and Ukraine as the third successful joint bid for the European Championship. For the five years leading up to the kick-off of the tournament, it’s been a roller coaster of positive and negative events; ranging from host city selection to criticism of sufficient infrastructure to the lottery process to obtain tickets for matches but the time had finally come, we were heading to Poland to see the best European teams battle it out on the pitch. In a perfect world, we would have stayed for an extended period of time but unfortunately work schedules limited our trip to eight days. Even so, we were firm determined on making the most of our adventure.
Flying out of Newark Liberty Airport on the evening of the 14th, we made our way to Warsaw (via Brussels) and had a fairly low-key day first day of enjoying the local fare, catching up with my family (with whom we were staying in Warsaw) and of course, watching the second matches of Group D on the television. With a good night's rest under our belts, the international appeal of "the beautiful game" became immediately visible on the morning of the 16th. Boarding our train from Warsaw to Krakow, we met a family of four in our train cabin who were noticeably tired. Sitting down next to a slightly older gentleman named Victor, he asked where we were from as he’d heard me speaking in both Polish and English. I explained that we were from the US, but that all of my family was from Poland at which time he let me know that the group was from Malta. For those of you not familiar with Malta (I’ll admit that I wasn’t an expert,) a quick snapshot of the country can be found here. As our three hour ride began, the train rolled off and the dialogue began. Topics ranged from the economy (shocker,) politics (another shocker,) education, New York City housing prices, Maltese history and a slew of others but the one which we discussed the most was the cultural environment of Poland and the country’s growth since the fall of communism. Victor and his family were very complimentary of Warsaw, its integration of history and modernism in addition to the country’s overall ability to feel so welcoming to so many guests. It should be noted that this was still the case even after Victor’s brother needed stitches since he was hit in the head with a glass by a disgruntled fan while rooting for the Spanish team at an Italian restaurant. Whether this was more reflective of the otherwise positive environment of Poland or the worldwide understanding of certain soccer fans being “over-passionate,” I’m not sure but it was comforting to know that this kind of behavior didn’t tarnish the overall brand of the country in the eyes of its Maltese guests.
The 16th was a very important night for the Poles as they were in full control of their destiny. Win their match versus the Czech Republic and they were into the Quarterfinals, at least as the runner-up of Group A. Upon arriving in Krakow we unpacked, took care of some formalities and headed over to the Fan Zone, an open and slightly muddy grass field often used for larger masses, such as those held by Pope John Paul II.
The criticism that many had was true, the environment was very sponsor heavy but, at least in my opinion, that’s understandable as they were paying for the overhead associated with maintaining the area for almost a month’s time. In an effort to organize the crowds looking to purchase food and beverage in the zone, administrators instituted a ticket system for all purchases (besides souvenirs.) All food tickets were sold at 1 zloty (the local currency) per ticket and beer tickets, which could only be used to purchase Carlsberg beers, were sold at 7 zloty per ticket. As a point of reference, at the time of the trip the exchange rate was $1 for 3.30 zloty. With about two hours to go until match time, the Fan Zone’s population began to grow exponentially.
Drones of Polish fans were rapidly funneling into enclosed area and with about an a hour to go, when they started to get rowdy, we headed to the center of the Old Town, <Insert Photo 5> a hotbed of bars and restaurants where everyone was holed up, ready to watch the match. We ended up grabbing a table at a restaurant called Sioux where everyone had one thing on their mind: the match. In the states, most restaurants would be adamant about making the most of you sitting at a dinner table for two hours, maximizing the number of drinks, appetizers and entrees ordered or at least making you feel guilty until you ordered more. That was certainly not the case; the servers at the restaurant were the furthest from pushy. They realized that you were going to be there for the next two hours and made their priority to make sure your glasses and plates were full but at your pace. The third matches of the group stage were even more interesting than their two predecessors as both matches were being played simultaneously. At half-time of the Poland vs. Czech Republic match, you could hear people cheering as Greece had scored on Russia in the extra time of the first half. Immediately, everyone started talking about what it would mean if the score of that match held and Poland won their match. Not only would Poland make it out of the Group stage, they would actually win their Group. The first 71 minutes of the Poland vs. Czech match were laden with missed opportunities for both teams until, in the 72nd minute, the Czech Republic scored and temporarily broke every Polish fan’s heart. Despite a myriad of substitutions, Poland wasn’t able to come back in the match and as such Czech Republic won the Group and Greece moved on as the runner up.
As we left the restaurant and headed into the main square of the Old Town we entered a grocery store to buy some drinks to take back to the hotel room. While waiting in line at the store, fans lamented about wasted opportunities but it didn’t take long for someone to find a silver lining as one of the fans said, “Well at least the Russians didn’t make it either.” Old feelings die hard. As we left the store, more Poles had made their way to the streets, coming back from the Fan Zone and leaving the bars. Surprisingly, the cloud of disappointment that had hit in the 72nd minute of the match had already been lifted and the Polish fans began to sing and dance in the streets, holding their scarves high above their heads. They realized that even if their team was not going to advance, that Poland was finally getting recognized by the world with the positive attention it had long deserved.
We spent the next few days in Krakow, exploring its rich history by day and watching the remaining Group matches by night. With the Dutch and English teams residing in Krakow, it was a given that their fans would be supporting their teams all over town. Some fans set up shop in outdoor cafes, others took to exploring the town by tour cars while loudly humming the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, but however they showed their support, they were always friendly and willing to take a photo with you.
With my girlfriend having spent time studying in Holland, she had a vested interest in the Netherlands team so we made a conscious effort to find a place with good energy and good beer to enjoy the match outside of the Fan Zone. Ironically enough, that place ended up being the English Football Club. Yes, you read that correctly. Two Americans, supporting Holland, in an English-supporter bar in Poland - I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to. Initially it didn’t sound like it would have been a good environment, but it ended up being great. We were able to watch the Netherlands versus. Portugal match on a huge screen and even make friends with locals (who were huge Chelsea fans and frequented this bar during the Premiere League season) and also a soccer fan from India who lives in Czech Republic but was visiting his Polish girlfriend. It's interactions like this that make me look forward to a time when the US will embrace soccer more than once every four years, and everyone can engage in this sort of uniting dialogue, anywhere and everywhere throughout the world.
After a few more days in Krakow we headed back to Warsaw, unfortunately this time without any Maltese with which to pass the time… or air conditioning; luckily there was beer to keep us cold. Our main event was upon us, with the Group stages over we knew who we’d be seeing at the Quarterfinals match in Warsaw, Portugal vs. Czech Republic.
As was seen during many matches, it seemed like rain was as necessary for a match as the pitch, players and ball. The night before the match there were very intense thunderstorms and the weather report for match day did not look much better. Luckily for the players and fans, the National Stadium in Warsaw was built with a retractable roof for just such occasions. As we moved closer to the stadium throughout match day, the weather got progressively better and the sun came out just as we arrived on the local tram.
Right away you could see that, even with Poland out of the tournament, its fans were still going to show their nationalism at the match. In the sea of red and white shirts and jackets, it was hard to distinguish between Polish fans and Czech fans. While there was a respectable number of Portuguese fans in attendance, Czech’s proximity to Poland certainly made it easier for fans to travel to the match and support their team. Moreso surprising was that a majority of the Polish fan base at the match was rooting for the very team which knocked them out of the tournament. Every few minutes after a round of Czeska chants, the Polska chant would break out and the stadium would erupt with the passion of the local fans.
Contrary to the positive energy coming from the Poles and Czechs, while everyone already speculated it throughout the tournament, almost everyone really does hate Ronaldo. While the fans did not chant Lionel Messi’s name at him like the Danes did during their match against Portugal, the Poles and Czechs made it a point to whistle every second which Ronaldo had possession of the ball. Even with that kind of disdain for Ronaldo, he made it a point to show the crowd that all of the venom in the world wasn’t going to stop him as he drove in the only goal of the match at the 79th minute. As the match wrapped up, it was hard not to appreciate the quality of play from both teams and particular strategies, even if many of them did not work as effectively as planned. The Portuguese cheered, the Czechs left disappointed and the Poles took to the streets with more scarves, flags and Polska chants. Walking from the stadium back to the center of town on that warm Warsaw night, everyone couldn’t help but remain excited as there were still six more matches until a champion was crowned and the spotlight, which had shined for 24 days onto Poland and Ukraine, was extinguished.
Marek is a Regional Representative for www.newjerseycraftbeer.com, Cicerone.org Certified Beer Server, New York Red Bulls season ticket holder, fan of FC Barcelona and the US Men’s National Team. Follow him on Twitter.
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