Poland pitches up while Ukraine tries to cash in
Grounds for concern addressed in Warsaw before Europe's big kick-off
Sunday 15 April 2012
Put it this way: you have no difficulty telling where the artificial turf ends and the real thing – the grass on which the European Championship will kick off in 54 days – begins. No wonder Michel Platini was scathing about Poland's pitches when he visited Warsaw on Thursday, looking fit and full of his customary joie de vivre. But then the Uefa president hasn't been through a Polish winter.
The National Stadium has and, when the pitch was laid in January, temperatures hit 18 below zero. It survived a friendly against Portugal in February but has hardly felt warm or been kissed by the sun since. Although a personal inspection, conducted in response to Platini's demand that every Polish surface be relaid, showed this carpet to be far from lush, there is hope that the rays of a belated spring will have done their work a month before Poland and Greece stride out to begin the tournament. If there are still threadbare patches on 10 May, the thing will be ripped up and replaced.
This was patiently explained by Agnieszka Olszewska, a member of the team preparing Poland for its share of the joint hosting. Ukraine also came in for criticism from Platini – in this instance due to the astronomical prices being sought for hotel rooms – during his lightning tour of the two countries.
The following day I was welcomed to the National Stadium by Ms Olszewska. To be fair, no tales were spun. In any case, experience induces caution about pre-tournament scares. They often arise – the dead dog found on a beach near England's base in the Spanish Basque country in 1982 was classic – and alarm is not always justified. And on this occasion the concern about Ukraine seems the more authentic.
Pitches can be replaced – oneof Switzerland's was changed between matches during the most recent European Championship – but hotels take a little longer and English, French or Swedish fans unwilling or unable to pay several hundred pounds a night for often modest lodgings will have missed an experience for ever. Plenty are resigned to it; even England's FA, who normally struggle with demand, have returned tickets.
Of course, the missing thousands can go to the next European Championship – it happens to be in France – but Ukraine looks likely to feature the patches of empty seats we hoped had become a thing of the past. While some, no doubt, will find it piquant that Uefa should be complaining about the get-rich-quick philosophy, and others may ask why Ukraine was awarded hosting, it is a sad situation, especially for the families to whom Platini frequently refers, having himself been introduced to the delights of top-class football by his father.
Poland, where the Republic of Ireland play their group matches – they meet Croatia and Italy in Poznan and Spain in Gdansk – seems more inviting. In Warsaw at least, locals complain that they cannot lay hands on tickets for matches at the handsome new stadium, where Poland play Russia after Greece and to which, in their dreams, they will return for a quarter or semi-final (the final is in Kiev).
On arrival at Frédéric Chopin International Airport, you are greeted by posters erected by Cola-Cola. There is an animal mascot and an exhortation – "let's get crazy" – that hardly accords with the Slavic soul. If you ever feel like a rest from the frantic, machine-gun laughter to which England resonates, try one of those other parts of Northern Europe where a smile means something. Warsaw is one of them.
But interest in football has become avid. While natural scepticism extends to the national team, notably the inclusion of players brought up in other countries, an affection for the game is evident.
Poland should be ready. The spring is just a little behind time and, although some work proceeds at the National Stadium in preparation for a friendly between Legia Warsaw and Sevilla on Tuesday, Uefa's communications equipment is already on site, locked in a phalanx of containers in the car park.
The worry is to the east and the suspicion still that the Irish, rather than English, had the luck of the draw.
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