All entries for June 2012

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 16, 2012

Croatia – Italy, national questions

Italy - CroatiaPoznan is one of the most dynamic cities in Poland, radically changed since the times I went there as a visiting student in 1989. It is one of the most western in both geographic and socio-economic terms. Which also means that on Thursday, it was full of cars with German registrations but Croat flags… There are more Italians than Croats in Germany, but clearly they are either lazier or, having been in Germany for much longer, less keen on expressing their national pride.

Croatia is a young nation and pride is even more important for them. On the packed tramway from the old town to the stadium I was about the only Italian in a sea of White-Red chessboards… who started to jump with an intensity close to bring the tramway off the rails, while singing ‘tko ne skaca pravoslavni je’: who doesn’t jump is orthodox. Not very relevant on a day match against Italy. But I knew that: when in Travnik, Bosnia, in 2008 as a election international observer, on one evening I was eating some cevapcici in a bar. A group of local (i.e. Bosnian-Croat) youth stared at the way I was eating and then asked why I was not eating the mountain of row onion accompanying the meat – a clear sign that I was a stranger, a rare one in that corner of Bosnia. Once learnt I was Italian, visibly unhappy (Italy had an ambiguously pro-Serbian stand during the Bosnian war), they asked me to make the sign of the cross. This is when my Catholic education came to hand, and I did it the "right" way (left-to-right), earning me the locals’ enthusiastic appreciation –(in Travnik they clearly didn't know that the probability of finding an Italian Orthodox are etremely low). They even offered me a glass for a toast to the pope, adding that ‘we are all Catholic here’… Which was true in Travnik East, but only because the Muslims had either ended in mass graves, or been expelled to Travnik West. Three years earlier, I could imagine, my unexpected drinkmates were fighting. But things have moved on a lot, especially in Croatia, and Zagreb is probably one of the most liberal and open cities in Central Europe – although Croat Bosnia and rural Croatia, especially if affected by the war, less so. And I still have the unpleasant feeling of remembering that some of their hooligans, like the Serbs, were also active in the paramilitary forces in the 1990s.

Although my knowledge of Serb-Croat (sorry Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, but it does look like one language to me) is very limited, I could often understand the Croats in the tramway and later in the stadium. The youngest ones, while singing in Croat, spoke to each other in German: they are no ‘Integrationsverweigener’. Some also spoke Italian, either because from largely Italian-speaking Istria or because of having spent time in Italy. And in the stadium, they were often singing insults in Italian, thanks to the strong links of love-hate between Croat and Italian hooligans. The Italian fans are too illiterate linguistically to be able to answer – and towards the end of the match were also too depressed.

Apparently some Croat fans booed Balotelli, and one threw a banana. I did not hear or see any racist tone, though, all Croats I saw were all friendly and hopefully, despite the negative efforts of a bit of the Italian right who want to equate fascist crimes and Yugoslavian crimes against Italians at the end of the war, the bad times may be at the end. What I am sure of is that, in both two opening matches, Italian fans supported Balotelli unanimously, and not for instrumental reasons given that he clearly disappointed on the pitch: the time when a part of Italy booed the first black Italy player are definitely over (we have come really last on that: even Poland and Croatia have had black players for longer, and easily got over that).


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)


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