All 12 entries tagged Football

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June 19, 2012

Euro successes

Market SquareThe two Euro 2012 groups playing in Poland (and the only ones I've followed so far) may have not offered the best football, but they did offer the best fans: the Irish, winners of all prizes as most popular fans, the Russians, undeservedly attacked by hooligans in what however became an occasion for most Poles to rethink their anti-Russian complexes, the colourful Spaniards, the noisy Croats, the musical Greeks, the good Czech soldiers, and of course the poor Poles, who keep singing “Polacy nic nie sie stalo” (Poles, nothing has happened). The only exception is the Italians: few and made of essentially two groups: clueless families and fascists. A few times I wished I was sitting on the other side, but at least, after last night, I can confirm the positive observation that even right-wing fans now appreciate Balotelli.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and night in Poznan with the Irish fans. While still in a good mood, they did go through a certain involution over the last week: “you’ll never beat the Irish” became “you’ll rarely beat the Irish”, and eventually “you’ll always beet the Irish”. As the football became less and less rewarding, “stand up for the boys in green” gradually gave way to “stand up for the Polish girls” (a bit sexist: just like the various versions of “shag the queen”, not an inherently wrong concept, but space for improvement on form). By the end, they even stopped cheering Trapattoni (he had to wait until the age of 73 for conceding 9 goals in 3 games). Poznan's beer, Lech, is sold in green bottles and cans and enjoyed much favour, even more than the equally green, but weak, Calrsberg sold in the stadiums. Seeing the queues outside bottle shops in Poznan, Polish onlookers could only comment: “it’s just like under communism”.

Quite. Mass rallies on Plac Defilad in Warsaw, under the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science, were not seen since the 1st of May marches of communist times. And Poland’s tournament, even if unsuccessful, has still been their best since… 1986.

What has changed since communism is the perception of Poland. It is, so far, a very successful tournament, all visitors visibly enjoying the perfect organisation, the new stadia and, most importantly, the beautiful cities and the landscape between them (not always the roads, but believe me, they are so much better than just ten years ago). Just like the 2010 World Cup changed the perception of South Africa from dangerous violent country to emerging world economic power, Poland now has strong ambitions of getting rid of any ‘grey’ or ‘poor’ perception. Most Poles have kept the white-red flags on their cars despite defeat. The open racism feared by the BBC has been limited so far to one Croat banana. This ‘feel-good’ effect may not last. When in 2006 Germans broke the tabu of waving their national flags during their home World Cup, the surge in national pride registered by surveys only lasted one month or two. In Poland, the bills for the stadiums, and the poverty of those who could not afford a ticket, will remain. Many companies building the stadiums (incluiding the main contractor of Warsaw's National Stadium), after cut-throat competition for the contracts, have already collapsed and failed to pay subcontractors, leaving hundreds of workers without months of hard-earned wages: like for the recent North Korea-style queen jubilee in London, should modern mass events have to rely on unpaid labour? Unpaid workers were rightly protesting at Wroclaw stadium last week.

PS I was forgetting that the Euro is about football after all. Cheers to Spaniards and Croats, who have provided the ultimate falsification of stereotypes on lower morality of Latin and Slavic people in comparison to pretendedly superior Scandinavians (see Swedish-Danish biscuit, Euro 2004). And cheers to Pirlo, but it hurts to think Milan gave it to Juventus for free last year... a karma for having previously given away Shevchenko and Kaka for trillions after their sale-by date, I suppose.


June 18, 2012

Defensive Greeks

GreeceOn Saturday night, sitting in between thousands of increasingly desperate Russians, I observed an example of Greek bravery, against an intense 90-minute siege. As an Italian, a part of me secretly believes that the best football, the most exciting , the most difficult and the most clever, is defensive football, the catenaccio (my Milanese part believes exactly the opposite, but fortunately football does not require intellectual coherence).

Shame Greeks were as defensive, but not as brave, on Sunday against German austerity as they had been against prodigal Russians. Even if Left voters rallied around Syriza, rightwing ones did the same around New Democracy. So we have, once again, a last minute survival of the Euro. It is not that a Syriza’s victory would have been a rising star, as some Greek friends believe: socialism in one country was impracticably for the largest country in the world (Russian fans on Saturday reminded me of that), let alone for the most dependent economy of the EU15. Tsipras’ project of defaulting while keeping the Euro would have been an adventurous bet and require more than a political, fiscal and accounting miracle (by the way, it would be less difficult for Italy, which does not have a primary deficit and could survive on its own Euros). Maybe, actually, Samaras will be able to negotiate better conditions from the EU than Tsipras would have: he has more friends and more (undeserved) credibility. The point is rather a distributional one: given his electorate, Samaras will not really touch tax evasion nor rent, the roots problems of Greek public finances. And I believe it is urgent, for the Left, to expose the distributional aspects, rather than the technocratic ones, of the Euro-crisis.

Russian minersHere in very sunny Poland (yesterday I even got sun-burnt while kayaking in the countryside) people do not worry about Greece nor the Euro (they are at the end of the news), but only about Euro 2012. On Saturday night, I left the stadium with thousands depressed Russians (what a difference with their singing at the beginning of the match), the best so far in the Euro), heading silently towards the city centre. In the middle of the long Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula, we run into an even larger crowd coming in the opposite direction: the Polish fans leaving the Fan Zone after Poland-Czech Republic 0-1. In this same place, on Tuesday Polish hooligans had tried to attack the Russians. This time, typically Slavic melancholy and hang-over united both sides in a depressed and totally innocuous mood. In Wroclaw (where Poland had played) there were some minor incidents, but even there, the large majority of Polish fans opted for joining the Czechs in celebrating the elimination of Russia – for both sides a goal in itself.


June 13, 2012

After Poland–Russia

PoliceDespite days of media tension-building, the Polish-Russian war of 2012 went by with only minor incidents – and with little damage even in football terms.

Maverick Polish rightwinger takes on the USSR

I went to the start of the much-disputed Russian march, at the beginning of the Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula. A large police presence defended a few thousands Russians who were in a good friendly mood and avoided ostentatious communist symbols – tsarist ones prevailed. Maverick rightwing politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke, in desperate search of publicity, tried single-handedly to stop a lonely USSR flag. He caused amusement instead of a fight, but he is the usual case (think Le Pen and Nick Griffin) of far Right in a neck-tie, cunningly making space for the violent one. Only a little more threatening were little groups of Polish hooligans, who shouted their hatred to the Russians and ‘Russian whores’ to the police who defended them. When I had to cross the police lines to leave the Russian march, a Polish policeman addressed me in fluent Russian explaining me that I was going in the wrong direction. It is not the first time that I am mistaken for a Russian in Poland – but it is the first time that I am treated politely for this.

A little later, more Polish hooligans tried to attack the Russians and were dispersed by water cannons, with about 200 arrests and a few minor injuries. Comparisons with 1794, 1830, 1905 and 1920 are rather misplaced.

I then moved on to the Polish fans zone under the Palace of Culture and Science, the skyscraper that Stalin donated to Warsaw. Some 50,000 Polish fans, and I could spot only one Russian, a young woman wrapped in a national flag. Russians can be no less brave than Poles.

Some pictures from around Euro 2012 here, and more occasional comments on Twitter: @guglielmomeardi


June 11, 2012

Euro–history – ahead of Poland–Russia

Irish historian Norman Davies, after XVI Century's Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, defined Poland as ‘God’s Playground’. I dislike his romantic approach to history, but indeed the playground of Euro 2012 football matches having been the main playground of European XX Century’s history, it’s no surprise that every day brings new history politics issues. Let see some of them, because rather than ‘don’t mention the war’, here the point is it to mention it right.

German history (1)

Only two weeks ago Obama caused a major diplomatic scandal when, while delivering the Presidential medal of Honour to the memory of Jan Karski, the Pole who in 1942 brought the news of the extermination camps to a West unwilling to hear, to see and to act, pronounced the words ‘ Polish extermination camps’. Nothing is more offensive to Polish ears: it is just like saying ‘American terrorist attacks’ for 9/11, just because it happened in America. The Polish authorities, usually very flattering towards the Americans, asked for a public apology, Obama obliged immediately, but the damage is done. Last week, the German, Italian and Dutch team, and a few English players, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the pictures show them with the guided tour headset. The first thing the guides say in Auschwitz, is that in 1942-45 there was no Poland: Auschwitz was in Nazi Germany. Let’s hope they will remember what Obama has not remember from his tour two years ago (when he mixed up Auschwitz with Buchenwald).

German history (2)

One who needs a bit of history lessons is the second coach of Germany, Hansi Flick. He invited the team to a ‘Stahlhelmen auf’. In Gdansk. He apologised more convincingly than Obama, probably because the Germans at home care about history more than Americans do.

German history (3)

The Czech Republic and Germany might meet in the quarterfinals, although this is unlikely given the Czech bad start. In any case, President Gauck, while leading the hardliners towards the Ukrainian government on the Tymoshenko case, just made a historic step towards better Czech-German relations with an excellent letter of unconditional condemnation of the Nazi massacre of Lidice in 1942, which significantly avoids mentioning the Benesz decrees (as if they retrospectively justified German crimes) and express admiration for the Czech resistance (which can no longer be considered moraly responsible for the massacres, for having assassinated Reichsprotektor Heydrich). Well done. Czech Republic and Germany may meet in the quarter-finals.

Polish history (1)

In Warsaw the impressive Museum to the 1944 Insurrection (not to be confused with the Ghetto insurrection of 1943!) has become a pilgrimage point for Polish fans before each match. And he is crowded with western fans too, and are conquered by the dramatic, if one-side, history of Warsaw’s sufferance. Everybody hopes that Russian fans will visit too: the museum blames them as much as the Germans (but does not blame the mistakes of the Polish underground leaders). Some Russian fans have left flowers at the Insurrection monument.

Polish history (2)

The tramways to Gdanks new stadium run along Gdansk shipyards, now largely dismissed, where the army massacred strikers in 1970, Solidarnosc was born in 1980, and communism started to end in 1988. Yesterday, Italian President Napolitano left his flowers under the monument to the victims of 1970, which was appreciated by locals even if they could not avoid to notice that back in 1970 Napolitano was a communist himself (although as moderate as a communist can be). Now my Polish friends define the impressive shipyards as the monument to the collapse of communism, and indeed there is a ‘Museum of Freedom’ here since 2005, when I came for the 25th years of Solidarnosc celebrations. But I can’t avoid to notice that the dismissed parts look to me rather like a monument to the collapse of capitalism. Moreover, in the part that still is active, just meters away from the ‘Museum of Freedom’, a few years ago it was discovered that North Korean welders, posted from their government, were working for no salary…. Selective freedom indeed.

Russian history (1)

In 1920, the Soviet Army arrived to Warsaw gates. Germany and Hungary being then in a revolutionary state, a Soviet advance would have changed Europe’s history – who knows if for the better or for the worse. Pilsudski guided the freshly created Polish army to the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ and condemned socialism to be ‘in one only country’. Tomorrow, for the Poles, it is re-enactment of that battle, and they hope in a new miracle. All Russia (or USSR)-Poland games are politically charged: in 1957, during the Polish Spring of 1956-58, when Poland beat the USSR in Chorzów, hundreds of thousands sang the national anthem, in tense awareness of what had just happened in Budapest; in 1982, Poland stopped the USSR 0-0 in Barcelona, qualifying for the semi-finals, and the Soviet TV could not broadcast the match live because of the big Solidarnosc banners behind one of the goals (old times: now anything vaguely political cannot enter the stadium).

Russian history (2)

But for the Russians tomorrow, the 12th of June, is national day: the announcement of Russia’s exit from the USSR in 1990, following Eltsin’s election victory. Russian fans asked the permission to organise a match through Warsaw ahead of the match, which was initially banned but eventually allowed on a very short tract. The end of the USSR is something Poles should be happy to see celebrated. But the Polish Right is inflamed: Russians marching in Warsaw! Dressed in red! The Russian fans are nationalist, their leader being active in Zyrinovski’s party, and add to the provocation by announcing they will carry communist symbols (banned by a law on the same ground as swastikas in Poland, which however the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional but the Constitutional Court). One has to hope right-wing Polish football hooligans will not react. Some of them have left flowers at the liberating Red Army monument, though.

Polish Fanta-history

As Spanish novelist Cercas writes in his Anatomia de un instante, according to some survey (?) a quarter of British people believe Churchill was a fiction hero. What is sure is that a quarter of Polish people believe that the 2010 Smolensk disaster, when the Polish president and the highest political, military and economic authorities died in a plane crash when heading to Katyn’s remembrance day, was a Russian attack. On the 10th of each month, the Right demonstrates in memory of Lech Kaczynski in front of the presidential palace – which is just besides the Bristol Hotel, where the Russian team is based. Fortunately no problem at all occurred during yesterday’s demonstration, and the Russian team made the nice gesture to leave flowers at the Smolensk victims monument. Still, some nutters (under the banner ‘Solidarni 2010’) still cry that Kaczynski was murdered by Russians. They were kindly invited to get out of the stadium area last Friday, will they try again tomorrow?

Ukrainian history

There are two Ukraines, one hates the Russians, the other hates the Germans, neither trusts the Poles, who on their side would like to bring Ukraine under their influence and away from the Russian ones. During the Orange revolution of 2004, Poles were wearing more orange flowers than the Ukrainians themselves. The horrible crimes between Ukrainians and Poles at the end of WW2 are less and less mentioned. Signs of hope?

Italy-SpainOn a lighter note

For once, I wasn’t ashamed of being Italian yesterday in Gdansk. For Polish speakers, the two best Polish comments on the events of the last few days:

“Tyton ratuje zycie”

“Yakunovich siedzi na trybunie. Tymoszenko tez siedzi”

(untranslatable, sorry)


January 16, 2012

Don Giovanni's triumph at La Scala (but failure at La Scala del calcio)

scala.jpgLa Scala summarises Milan’s modern history for good and bad. Built under Austrian empress Maria Theresa, home of music under Enlightenment and then romanticism, symbol of the Risorgimento when Verdi lived down the road and the Nabucco inspired patriotism, destroyed by Allied bombing and then immediately rebuilt (se sta mai cuj man in man) and re-inaugurated by Toscanini with a Tosca in strong antifascist tone. From 1968, its season opening on the 7th of December (Milan’s holyday, Sant’Ambrogio), the poshest of all events in Italy, is on and off the opportunity for political protest, including occasional egg-throwing at aristocrats, nouveaux riches and fur-dressed ladies. At the peak of Berlusconism it was privatised (1997) and completely renovated (2002-05). Love or hate opera, this is THE place to love it or hate it.

This year’s season was opened by the most important opera of all, Don Giovanni, and it was attended by fresh new prime minister Monti, who had just replaced a prime minister that had not come to the previous openings but believed to be himself the best embodiment of Don Giovanni. Given Monti’s symbolic (not yet regulatory, unfortunately) heavy hand on tax fraud, maybe for next year’s première tax police will make on-spot checks on the public – as they did for last new year eve in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the most exclusive Italian resort. It was also the first opening for a long time under a leftwing mayor, who made sure that no tickets were given for free to authorities and arranged big screens for live broadcasting around the city.

What a symbolic occasion for a turning point, it would seem: after a taste of Haendel, here comes Mozart to celebrate, with the most popular of all operas, the descent into hell of the Great Seductor and maybe the rise of new morality. However, Mozart stands in the way: too complex for instrumental readings, and especially so in the minimalistic and modern staging of Robert Carsen. In the most remarkable of a few coups-de-théâtre, at the end Don Giovanni, after falling into hell, reappears, and nonchalantly lights a cigarette smiling at the other characters descending themselves into the abyss... contrary to any moralizing, Don Giovanni wasn’t so evil and the others were not so innocent. Already the initial mirror behind the scene, portraying the theatre behind the theatre, had exhorted to look at ourselves and find the Don Giovanni in each and every one of us...

I didn’t go to the première, of course, but I managed to get in to the last show on Saturday. Opera tickets at La Scala are very expensive and big shows sell within minutes, but if you don’t mind standing in queue for a few hours in the freezing cold, on the day of the performance 140 gallery tickets are sold for just 12 Euros or less. This is especially for the cash-poor music fanatics, those known for whistling and throwing tomatoes at the slightest misinterpretation: this is the most difficult opera audience in the world. The two high galleries have a separate side entrance and you cannot mix up with the upper crust of the other levels of the theatre, least of all peak in into the foyer and disturb those who paid twenty times more: the reason they paid is not the music, it is exactly not mixing with you.

In my student days, the cheap day entrance tickets were more numerous but standing. Now, it is all-seated, and with E we were in the closest seats to the scene, at the very top (sixth) level: we had to dangerously lean out, but we could see almost all quite well. For the January shows unfortunately the best attraction for us (the direction of Barenboin, and Bryn Terfel as Leporetto) were missing, but replaced very well (by Steffens and D’Arcangelo). And if opera’s usual attraction is the over-the-top staging, this minimalistic one allowed welcome space for singers’ acting skills, and provided food-for-thought for further heated discussions on competing interpretations on the icy Piazza del Duomo.

La Scala del calcioIf there were only two isolated whistles for Don Giovanni on Saturday, there were 80,000 people whistling a disappointing Alexandre Pato on Sunday at the second Scala of Milan: that ‘of calcio’, itself long all-seated, for Milan-Inter. Unlike the triumph of last Spring, this was the most frustrating of Milan derbies: lot of Milan sterile possession only to be punished by an Inter break. Pato had been nearly sold to PSG on Thursday, but then held back by Berlusconi, whose daugher and AC Milan executive has been romantically conquered by the 22-year old player...... messy seductions go on.


November 21, 2011

PSG & the rise of the French far right

Follow-up to Polish fans' political own goal from Around Europe 2010-12

Polish football “chuligani” (I love Polish spelling and declination of English words, one of my favourite being “hot dogi”, reminiscent of Venetian history) scored one more political own goal on the 11th of November, Polish national day (Independence). They took part in an extreme right demonstration, turned it into a major guerrilla with the police who stood between them and antifascist demonstrators... and maybe, hopefully, from next year these traditional 11th of November neo-fascist marchs will be banned. The Polish Right still defends them, including the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, which used to be very serious... and their crisis goes on.

Fiers de nos couleurs... oui, mais quels couleurs?Extreme right’s affairs with football fans are not a Polish prerogative, though. A special case in this landscape are the supporters of Paris Saint-Germain: I went yesterday to check out at the Parc des Princes, but they do defy any easy interpretation and would require more extensive research (there is quite some literature on it actually, e.g. D. Bodinas et al., “Racisme, xénophobie et ideologies politiques dans les stades de football”, Raisons politiques, 1, 2008; N. Hourcade "Supporters extrêmes, violences et expressions politiques en France", in T. Busset et al. (eds.), Le football à l’épreuve de la violence et de l’extrémisme, Antipodes, 2008).

The Boulogne end of the Parc des Princes took the name of Kop of Boulogne in the 1970s, imitating Liverpool’s fans, and it became increasingly infiltrated with neo-nazi skin-heads. But the weird stuff started in the 1990s, when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) actively promoted its matches to wider groups (sounds like educational “widening participation” policies...), by handing out discounted tickets to the other end, Auteuil. The Auteuil end became popular with ethnic minorities... ooohps, you can’t use such racial wording in France: youth of African and especially North African descent. Tough rivalry between the Kop of Boulogne and the Virage Auteuil quickly developed. Since then, the intriguing specificity of PSG’s fans is that they spend more time fighting against each other, than fighting against other teams’ counterparts.

Things went increasingly nasty during the last ten years, with major accidents such as during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2006, with anti-semite aggressions and one Kop Of Boulogne fan killed by a police bullet. After further violence in 2008 Sarkozy even threatened to dissolve the club. Recent years saw major ‘security plans’ being introduced. While, unlike in Italy and Poland, no compulsory ‘fan ID card’ has been introduced, photographic identification is required to attend the two ends. Fans obviously protested against the changes, Auteuil's even going on strike for a while. Many fans moved away from the two ends, to the Paris stand. A part of Auteuil fans have moved to the H blue stand, where I watched first-of-the-league PSG against second-from-bottom Nancy. Nancy won 1-0, and in the H stand they were not happy, although still mostly busy with chanting the name of popular manager Kambouaré, threatened with sacking, and replacement with Ancelotti, by the new owners (from Qatar) and new director Leonardo. Auteuil's defence of Kambouaré looks like resistance against new foreign plutocrats, by the best of black France... ooops, you can’t use this word in France: a citoyen from Nouvelle Calédonie. I must say that in no football stadium in Europe I have seen such a melting pot as in the Parc des Princes, nicely contrasting with the frightening whiteness of many British stadia.

And the extreme right? The Front National was directly accused of involvement in the 2006 accidents during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv, but nowadays, it tries hard to present a more respectable face: unlike the Polish right, it avoids being mixed with nazi-skins and hooligans, although it keeps a paramilitary ‘security service’. The problem is that this strategy seems to be rewarding. Opinion polls put the new leader Marine Le Pen at 15-20% ahead of April’s presidential election. This could allow her to improve the record result of her father: 17% in 2002 and a surprising qualification to the second round. Ahead of that election, polls put Jean-Marie Le Pen at only 8-10%, because half of his voters were too ashamed to confess voting for him. Marine Le Pen appears as more ‘respectable’, so one hopes this 15-20% corresponds to all actual support and she will not double the forecast on voting day. But this respectability makes her more dangerous: in fact she is miming very well Sarkozy 2007, and the differences between the two are more and more blurred...


November 12, 2011

Saint–Denis, between kings and stade de France

I have noticed that Saint-Denis is not even mentioned in the majority of foreign tourist guides of Paris – despite being the nearest of all out-of-town destinations, on the way to the airport, and hosting one of the most important monuments of the whole of the France, the Basilique - and the Stade de France. The Basilique de Saint-Denis, formerly Abbey, now Cathedral, is a gothic masterpiece. Maybe not as monumental as Notre Dame de Paris, not as charming as Chartes Cathedral, not as precious as the Sainte-Chapelle; but a masterpiece nonetheless and built before them, by the visionary Abbé Suger, and therefore, in a way, more important for architectural history; only a couple of decades earlier, the style was Romanesque: see Saint-Germain-des-Prés for contrast. So , unlike in central Paris or Versailles, no tourist crowds, and the visitors are in large majority French – on the 11th of November, bank holiday, mostly families with children needing to revise their history lessons.Cathedrale

And what a place for revising history. Besides architectural history, the Basilica is an open book of sculpture history, and above all of French history. Here are the tombs of all but three French kings, covered by statues that show the evolution of sculpture from the Middle Ages to the neoclassic. The most beautiful are the Gothic ones, surprisingly realistic and human. Then, when French kings took the bad habit of invading Italy, there are the renaissance ones, including classic architectural elements. The Bourbons stopped the habit of monumental tombs, but after the 1815 Restauration Louis XVIII recovered the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and with ostentatious pump erected a monument to them too – with still their heads on. The cathedral currently hosts also the photographic portraits of the tombs by Antoine Schneck, which highlight the human dimension of the works, and also their human-like sensitivity to time and their perishable elements, starting from the noses.

The reason why Saint-Denis is not popular is outside the Basilique. This is a poor banlieu, strongly working class. The Plaine Saint-Denis was in the 1960s one of the largest industrial areas in the world (here they say the largest, but I don’t believe such hyperbolic statements). In the 1950s it hosted slums of Portuguese and North-African immigrants, of the kind portrayed in the recent, much disputed movie Hors-la-loi. Nowadays a very large part of the population is of African (North or West) descent. Politically, Saint-Denis has been uninterruptedly communist since 1944 – and to give an idea of how hegemonic the Left is, the city council opposition is... socialist. Saint-Denis even hosted the offices of the communist newspaper L’Humanité, an impressive building by Niemeyer, which the newspaper, in dire financial straits, had to sell last year.

Stade de France: France-USADespite its poverty and its bad reputation (highest crime rate in the Paris region, riots in 2005), Sant-Denis is not unpleasant, though, with the largest market in the whole region and, unsurprisingly a wide range of ethnic shops and ethnic food outlets.

Where one the factories were, since the World Cup 1998 there is the Stade de France, now surrounded with office buildings. It hosted a Football World Cup Final as well as a Rugby World Cup Final, but also riots in the occasion of a France- Algeria friendly in 2001. I went to see the friendly match between two mediocre football nations, France – USA, a boring 1-0. The stadium was nearly full. The first two terraces were full of white fans and tricouleur flags, but where I was, up in the third, cheapest (10€) terrace, the large majority were of black and Arab descent. At the minute of silence for WWI Remembrance, only the first two terraces stood up. But also the last one was silent, except very isolated whistles. And during the match all supported the bleus, even the fans carrying out-of-place Algerian flags, although maybe with a preference for the players of foreign descent, who are anyway the majority. An acceptable degree of intégration républicaine, I would say, despite the economic inequality.


October 26, 2011

Polish fans' political own goal

Football in Central Eastern Europe has some cultural specificities, rooted in a more artisan style, political subtitles under communism, lower incidence of media and sponsors, and stronger oral traditions – see the instructive ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. With westernisation, much has changed, but sometimes in unexpected directions.

Widzew Lodz fans in actionWhen I was in Poland in the 1990s I was tempted to go watch the football, but never actually went despite the very cheap tickets. The level of the game was disappointing but especially the fans were not recommendable. Not because in Poland there were more violent hooligans than in Italy in absolute terms – if any, the opposite would be true. The problem was the ratio: in my home town's San Siro, there would be maybe 1,000 potentially violent hooligans, hidden among 80,000 totally (well, almost totally) normal people; it is enough to know some basic geography of the stadium and you don’t have anything to worry about. In a Polish stadium, there will still be just 1,000 potentially violent hooligans – but only 500 ‘normal’ spectators...

Things have moved on. Sportwise, Polish football is still in dire straits and does not remember the great team that arrived third in the World Cups of 1974 and 1982. Over the last twelve European or World Cups, Poland has qualified only three times, and even then has always gone out immediately. They did qualify for Euro 2012 – but as hosts. The clubs are even worse, given that the best Polish players have gone the same way as the plumbers - abroad. No Polish team has qualified for the Champions League in sixteen years. Add to this regular corruption scandals and there is not much to enjoy.

But in terms of attendance things have moved on, although not necessarily improved. In the last few years a few modern stadia have been built – for Euro 2012 but also for the richest clubs like Wisła Kraków and Legia Warszawa. They are very rarely full, but still attendance, and ticket prices, have increased a lot, together with the average income in the country. Legia fans strip off after a goal - despite winter temperature

More recently , football fans (kibice or in slang kibole) have also become a political actor. As in many countries, they are permeated with extreme right groups, but the novelty is that in Poland they have unanimously organised in support of one party (the rightwing Law and Justice, PiS), or, more precisely, against one party (the ruling liberal Civic Platform, PO), responsible for heavier policing in and around the stadia, but also not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. In the last election campaign, the liberal prime minister undertook a bus campaign journey throughout the country – and everywhere he would be met up by organised football fans disrupting his events and shouting ‘Tusk, ty matole, rząd obalą ci kibole!’ ('Tusk, you fool, these fans bring down the government’). The Right, on its side, started idealising football fans as an example of modern patriotism. Senator Romaszewski, a famous former dissident, even compared the football fans beaten by the police to the workers of Radom and Ursus violently repressed by communist security forces in 1976. One week before the election, when a police car killed a fan in Zielona Góra at the end of a speedway match (speedway is nearly as popular as football in Poland), the tension reached dangerous levels.

However, if football fans may have brought a few thousands votes to Kaczyński’s party, they lost many more to him. In the last election of the campaign, PO broadcasted a TV ad showing violent football hooligans in action and concluding ‘they go to vote – and you?’. According to surveys, the main reason why voters abandoned Law and Justice was the football fans. To stay in football talk, the fans scored an own goal of massive proportions.

On Sunday I went to see Legia Warszawa – Widzew Łódź. In the mid-nineties this was the decisive match for the title, but since then the two teams followed the economic fate of their cities: Warsaw's wealthy modernity is reflected by the new stadium in the beautiful Łazienki park, while Łódź is depressed, fighting to avoid relegation in an old stadium in decay. Still, the rivalry between the two largest Polish cities is very strong and Łódź is still often labelled as ‘Jewish’ by fans of other cities. Legia’s are particularly nationalist and anti-semitic: last month, in the Europe Cup match against Hapoel tel Aviv they exposed a large green banner ‘Jihad Legia’, and around the stadium Ku Klux Klan signs started to appear. There have been some cases of violence too. The shameful peak was reached by the Legia fans three weeks ago: they went to a match of the youngest team of Warsaw rivals Polonia, just to verbally abuse and physically threaten them: a team of nine-year old kids had to run in tears from the pitch to the changing room and be protected by the police...

This Sunday was not so bad fortunately. The specificity of Polish fans is that they shout rhythmically without any interruption, but they have an extremely limited vocabulary – which, on the positive side, means that I did not hear any racist slogan. The impression is that the large majority has absolutely no clue about politics.

Polish fans seem to have gone through a sort of specific natural evolution determined by their specific natural environment. Given that the quality of the game is so poor (a 2-0 with just three shot on goal, on a Sunday afternoon when, elsewhere, Balotelli was destroying United and Milan was recovering from 0-3 to 4-3), the fans have developed the special attitude of not caring at all about what happens on the pitch. They only care about themselves and, possibly, the opposite fans and the police. Goal opportunities, missed balls, referee decisions would not affect the level of noise in the match. They keep shouting in the same way regardless of whether the result is 0-0, 0-3 or 3-0 – a quality which actually gained them the title of best fans at Euro 2008, and has been recently admired by Manchester City fans who adopted the customs of Lech Poznań’s ones. A second natural evolution of football fans in Poland is resistance to low temperatures. On a very cold autumn Sunday, when Legia eventually scored (the only events that they seem to notice), a good number of them threw their white Legia shirt away, remaining happily topless for the rest of the match while I was freezing despite two sweaters (and in Poland they don’t sell Glühwein like in the German stadia).

There was indeed one change of attitude of the fans during the match, but not related to football. Five minutes into the game, when Legia's players first reached the opposite end of the pitch, they were met by intensive fireworks fire from Łódź fans. The match was stopped for a few minutes and security forces reacted by charging the visiting fans and forcing them further away from the pitch. At that point the Legia end, in political solidarity with their counterparts, changed the target of their insults from the visitors to the police, and the hitherto uninterrupted ‘Łódzka kurwa’ roar was replaced by the slightly more sophisticated ‘jebać policię – kurwo zostaw kibica’ (sorry, I can’t translate these ones, without violating University rules on obscene language and having this blog shut down immediately).

The fans are not just a problem for Kaczyński – they also are for the football clubs, who unsuccessfully attempt to attract the middle classes in the new stadia (especially through prices, already higher than in Germany and Italy although much lower than in the UK and Spain). There is an intrinsic contradiction, though, between the methods used to control the hooligans and the aim at attracting new fans and their families, willing to spend more money and cause less trouble. As in Italy, Polish authorities have had the bad idea of enforcing compulsory ‘team fan cards’ to control who enters the stadion. This segregates fans from the beginning into ‘tribes’, and constitutes a barrier to the occasional neutral fan. I had to get this card in Italy for AC Milan, and I was a bit annoyed to be forced to get one also for Legia Warsaw, a team I do not support (I prefer Polonia Warsaw, and the KKK signs are at odds with my life promise that I would only support Inter Milan the day they play against the Ku Klux Klan). At least, the Polish card is made instantly by just showing an ID card, unlike the Italian one that, like everything in that country, needs a mountain of paperwork and a long wait. Most of all, however, I miss the informal, Volksfest style of German stadia, and the less tribal setting of Italian stadia in the 1980s. I remember seeing a few Milan – Napoli back then (how do I remember? you don’t forget Diego Armando Maradona), and the fun of bartering with the numerous Napoli fans sitting around, given the large population of immigrants from Naples in Milan. Variety is lost, homogeneity has been enforced – in Poland, even politically.


May 01, 2011

El Clásico and Spanish priorities

Follow-up to Marathon vs Palm Sunday procession in Madrid from Around Europe 2010-12

Bernabeu in the rain

The unfolding of el Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona provides more information of the state of Spanish society. It’s not extravagant to extrapolate from this football match: intellectuals and serious media are busy at it, with particularly animated debate on an article by José María Izquierdo in El País (a daily from Madrid, nota bene), drawing an original comparison between Real’s defender Arbeloa, Real’s manager Morinho, horror character Hannibal Lecter and the hawk of the conservative Partido Popular Mayor Oreja.

While the Semana Santa procession took priority over the Marathon on Palm Sunday, the following Wednesday the Semana Santa celebrations schedule had to be revised to make space to the Copa del Rey final and following celebrations. And a week later, the long planned Night of the Books – an evening of book markets and events in libraries and bookshops – was nearly silenced by the concomitant Champions League semifinal. If we add that today’s John Paul II’s beatification is heavily shadowed by a fresh academic book (La Confesión, by J. Rodriguez, 2011) on the Legion de Cristo scandals, we can draw a tentative table of Spanish priorities in 2011: (1) football, (2) books, (3) God, (4) other sports (than football, not God).

I had a direct look myself by going to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium yesterday. Still mainly in the shape of the 1982 World Cup, it would do with some modernisation, but it is uniquely spectacular for its near-vertical stalls. And, for me, it is forever associated to the memory of a Summer evening at the age of 12: the Italy-Germany 3-1 final of that World Cup, as well to a number of other good memories involving Milan winning or Inter losing. Shame that today this is the theatre of Mourinho’s speculative antifútbol – yesterday punished 3-2 by Zaragoza. Under a heavy storm - God's revenge?


April 03, 2011

Milan–Inter 3–0: when it matters…

Milan’s derby is the most important match in the season, regardless of the table and the stake. But yesterday’s was the first one in a generation with an Italian title at stake, with Inter behind Milan by only 2 points. In fact the only derbies I remember with an important stake were in Champions League, the semifinals 2003 and quarterfinals 2005, both obviously won by Milan - as again yesterday. In Milan, a productive, non-nonsense city, you can tell who is best when it really matters. Milan literally dominated the match from the first minute (Pato’s goal) to the last (Cassano’s goal). Inter, on paper the Italian, European and World’s champions in charge, were lost in the fog and their ugly version of football was obscured by Milan’s spectacular lights.

Both teams express the nature of the city, the only cosmopolitan one in Italy. Milan has an English name, from its founders, and Inter stands for Internazionale – an appropriate name given that hardly any Italian has played for them recently. Both teams were forced to change their unpatriotic names under fascism, respectively to Italian “Milano” and to “Ambrosiana” (from Milan’s own version of the Catholic Chruch). Inter was the team of the Church, and the only one allowed to win under Fascism, together with Roma and the royal family’s Juventus. It’s a matter of pride for Milan not to have won titles in that period. Milan was the bourgeoisie’s team, but after the war it was embraced by the masses of immigrants from the South, especially Sicily: I have inherited Milan’s faith from my mother side. As a result of demographic change it became a much more popular team, and in the 1970s and 1980s this was also reflected in a political divide, with Milan’s “ultras” of the South End waving Che Guevara flags and Inter’s preferring neofascist symbols on their North End. Red and black are by far more popular than black-and-blue. The downside of popular support, however, is to be easy prey of populist politics...

Milanese supporters (especially Milan’s – Inter’s are more pragmatic and prefer German players to Dutch and Brazilian ones) have a unique taste for the technical, stylistic act, the opposite of the attitude of British fans. The best personification of Milanese styles were Rivera and Van Basten, players who would often choose form over substance, and a more difficult way to score a goal as long as it was more beautiful.

Art is even endorsed by the fans. Milanese fans, who years ago had won an award for a reproduction of Munch’s scream to mock Inter fans despair, yesterday produced a reproduction of that most famous piece of Milanese painting, Leonardo’s Last Supper, where Judah was the only back and blue figure in a red-and-black, in reference to another Leonardo, who after being a Milanese hero has just ‘defected’ to the other side. The paradox is that Leonardo, both as player and manager’ was an excellent personification of the classy Milanese spirit, and that he left Milan in protest against Berlusconi’s style.

Leonardo

It was nice to see the San Siro stadium (aka La Scala del Calcio) so full and ‘warm’ again, as it always was in the 1980s and 1990s, even when Milan played in the second league. However, in recent times it is mostly half-empty, killed by TV football, ultras’ sectarian violence and excessive rotation of players. Football is a team sport and changing five players every six months kills its nature. Fortunately Milan still has its good ‘old guard’ (Seedorf and Nesta were impressive again yesterday), but the majority of players have a job tenure of a year of two. Which, as an employment policy, is always bad, whether by football clubs aiming to win sponsors at all cost, or university departments aiming to maximise REF results – at the cost of everybody else.


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