Jim Stewart headed east to Poland for Euro 2012 - and here’s his report from the host city of Poznan.
I have to confess a soft spot for Poland. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times, although not for nearly a decade, and can happily confirm it’s a great place to spend a few days.
The images of Poland as a grey and grim communist outpost are woefully outdated. Yep, the tower blocks remain but the old towns and countryside rival anywhere in central Europe. The welcome is warm, and the living is cheap.
So when the vote for the Euro 2012 venue fell in favour of Poland and Ukraine half a dozen years ago, I was counting the days. Alright, not in a ‘prisoner’s notches on the wall of the cell’ kind of way but you know what I mean.
My partner and I hadn’t even landed when the Euros came into view. Nope, you’ll be stunned to hear none of the teams were on the Wizzair flight from Luton. However, the Municipal Stadium of Poznan is probably the biggest building in the city and its white exterior is easily spotted out of the plane window like a Allianz Arena-esque space ship.
On land, and a cheap taxi from the small but perfectly formed airport whisks you into town in 20 minutes along a new road which, I suspect, is just one example of how Poznan has done itself up for the big tournament.
Now I’d booked us into a central hotel, close to the town square and, I hoped, not too far from the now legendary tournament fan zones, gathering points for supporters when there’s no game in town, or they haven’t got a ticket.
Luckily we weren’t too far away. To put it more accurately, the hotel was next to it. Overlooking it. So walking into our room was like strolling into a VIP box with the big screen - and it was one BIG screen - in the far left of the Plac Wolnosci. If Carlsberg made fan zones…. well, they kind of do because as sponsor they’re the only beer you can buy in there.
And that’s actually the one thing that annoys me about the Euros. The fan zones are good but you do feel you could be anywhere in Europe. The list of sponsors is like a Champions League advert and it’s clear any local support or flavour doesn’t get a look in. You couldn’t even get a vodka in the FanZone - in Poland!?!?! Still, there’s a cracking atmosphere as the evenings get going, I must admit, so I’ll stop grumbling.
Poznan’s jewel in the crown is its Stary Rynek, or old town square to you and me. It’s up there with the best you’ll visit, a large space with a jumble of colourful buildings, many but not all originals, surrounding it with bars and restaurants stretching out into the open square.
And in the middle there’s the quite glorious Town Hall where, at the stroke of noon each day, two model goats pop out of the bell tower and butt each other 12 times. Bizarre, but true.
Clearly the square had many important roles over the years but now its primary role is for the pastime that is known throughout the english-speaking world as people watching. At any time of year that would be good but the football Euros give it an added dimension.
You’ve obviously got the fans of the countries playing here. As we were arriving the Irish were nursing hangovers from their second and decisive defeat the night before, whilst the Croats were turning up in force for the Thursday night game. And there were a fair few Italians too.
Throw into the mix guards marching on horseback, a few bemused tourists caught out by the fact a major football tournament was underway, loads of locals soaking up the atmosphere and a marching band with dancers and it’s all fairly random. And delightful.
The Poles, were quite rightly, looking to make a pay day out of the tournament and a few prices had been directed north for the tournament (although my hotel stuck to its normal rates, a big tick there). So a pint of the local in the priciest spots on the main square, which would have set you back £1.20 (6 zlotys) in normal times, was on occasion ratcheted up to £2 (10 zlotys) a pint for the tournament. It was a struggle to survive… not!
You won’t go hungry in the square either. Alongside anything with chips you could imagine there was Polish fayre too, and you can’t really go to Poland without delving into the dumplings. Although, sorry, I might not next time, not quite my acquired taste. And for those looking for home comforts, McDonalds and co have made their mark in Poland now.
Matchday dawned, quite early for us as a bunch of kids were being filmed cheering for Croatia in the fan zone. Again and again and again.
It was a drizzly day in Poznan, not exactly a Donetsk downpour as it’ll now be known following the deluge in Ukraine, but not the brightest. So after the morning spent at the city’s spectacular shopping centre housed in a former brewery it was always going to be lively from lunchtime onwards.
The Croats took over the square, and every bar around it (and there are a lot) although a few brave Italians did make a vain and ultimately futile attempt to even up the numbers. It was good, it was lively, and Poznan, I suspect, has never seen anything like it.
We hopped on board a tram for the four mile ride out to the the stadium, and the party was in full swing outside.
Then it was through the cordons and inside the stadium. For me it’s probably the most ‘english’ of the stadiums I’ve seen for these Euros. It has more of a hemmed in feel (which is ironic considering it’s surrounded by the aforementioned open space), each stand is a different size and you feel right on the pitch.
Home to both Lech Poznan and also the second tier Warta Poznan, there’s 43,000 shiny light blue seats. And if I told you Lech play in blue and Warta play in green, I think you can work out who seems to hold the balance of power.
There are gigantic screens above both ends, the biggest in Poland in case you didn’t know.
Once again the Croats were out in force, taking probably up to half the stadium with the Italians gathered in one corner.
We were in a neutral portion, roughly on the halfway line. Again, one cracking view and the crowd-watching is just as much fun if the game wanes, be it the middle aged Croat with the cow bells, or the group of Italian lads in front of us who took gesturing at every ref’s decision to new levels.
Bizarrely, these four lads failed to appear for the second half. If you’d come halfway across Europe for the game, I think it’s generally assumed it’s worth hanging about for another three quarters of an hour for the second half.
Bearing in mind Italy were a goal to the good at the break they may well still be celebrating a victory (sorry boys, it finished 1-1).
The firecrackers made a regulation appearance in the second half, surprise surprise, although the man in black, a certain Mr Howard Webb, took it all in his stride.
It was depressingly disappointing to hear afterwards about some racist chanting from the Croats, although I couldn’t hear anything from where we were sat.
The trams back to Poznan old town were predictably chaotic but sometimes throwing sheer numbers at a problem works, and there were enough trams queued up as you would expect to see at a European tram convention. Yep, I’m sure there is such a convention. But nope, before you ask, I’ve not been.
If you want to avoid post-match tension - and the Croats were drinking for Croatia from a good hour - then a 1-1 draw is probably the best you could hope for, and back in town all seemed to pass off peacefully.
Our Poland adventure continued on Friday with a trip to the gorgeous provincial city of Gniezno and a few good hours back in the fanzone, bathing in evening sunshine as the players ran for cover in Donetsk.
It was a marvellous stay in Poznan and full credit to the hosts for putting on one hell of a show. Polish is not a language easy to master but the effort by hundreds of volunteers, and a huge assortment of english printed guides, means you would never get stuck.
The hospitality was great. The service levels are light years ahead of a Communist past, and rarely has a town that has had to deal with influxes of tens of thousands of football fans kept itself so clean.
And what’s more, I’m struggling to recall a tournament where the hosts were as up for the football as Poland. As we left on the Saturday, virtually every single local, every car, every other building was sporting the Poland colours. Sadly, it was all in vain.
But I can’t wait to be back there for the league...