REALLY, IT’S BEEN a tournament of two halves.
For those of us who have stayed on at Euro 2012 since Ireland went home, it almost feels a completely different competition. A new event even.
That particularly struck on a recent return to Gdansk — and the very fact I’m phrasing it like that despite the fact there were only a few days between the trips illustrates the sense of dislocation in both time and place.
Given that Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad had been based so close to the Baltic city, in Gdynia, Gdansk had been my own base for the first two weeks of the tournament. As soon as Ireland got eliminated, though, I was on my way to Warsaw.
That change in location itself further lent the feel of a new tournament. But it really felt displacing when I first had to make a return to Gdansk for the Germany-Greece quarter-final.
For a start, this was only the second game I had attended that didn’t involve Ireland, having covered Portugal-Czech Republic the night before (and, as the particularly cynical might say, it was also the first game that actually involved two teams competing).
For the initial group stages, I had requested accreditation for three games in Group A, too, but the distances involved and the sheer intensity of the Irish beat meant I had to cancel them. Attending games in Ukraine, meanwhile, was a write-off.
To illustrate that, I will only switch countries for the first time on Friday, with my trip to the final involving a stop-over in Minsk.
Indeed, the distances involved meant that, on my initial return to Gdansk, I was only there for a matter of hours. Having got a six-hour train in from Warsaw to arrive about three hours before the quarter, I was then kindly offered a lift back straight after it finished by former Sunday Tribune contributor Gabriele Marcotti. We got back to Warsaw at 6am.
It was only when one of the English papers I work for — in the anticipation that their team would face Germany in the semi-finals — despatched me back to Gdansk to visit the DFB camp on Monday and Tuesday that it really struck, though.
For one, this was the first time I had visited another team’s base other than Ireland’s. And, in truth, the difference couldn’t have been starker.
Whereas Ireland perfectly acceptably used a sparse enough sports complex with homemade rolls put on for guests, the Germans had a purpose-built complex with a free McCafe as you enter and a Mercedes car that could actually be won beside the press conference podium.
One was minimalist, the other dripped money.
Later that night, I went for a walk around Gdansk old town with the only other two Irish writers that had stayed on — Daniel McDonnell of the Irish Independent and Emmet Malone of the Irish Times. When we had made the same walk just a week before, the streets had been absolutely packed and there was a proper sense of vibrancy.
Now, they were empty. Only a few signs indicating the directions to a stadium that won’t feature any more Euro 2012 games suggested there had been a tournament here at all. Amazing how quick the football world moves on, how past venues are simply forgotten.
That moment to actually reflect, however, also illustrated a key difference. Because, whereas the coverage of the Irish team was absolutely intense, their elimination has allowed us to bask in the tournament a little more.
Obviously, we’re not complaining here.
Indeed, it is an absolute privilege to attend these competitions in the first place and covering your country at one of them is undeniably a career ambition for all of us. But it would be wrong to say there hadn’t been discussions over whether it’s a more enjoyable tournament when Ireland don’t qualify.
Spanish sports TV presenter Sara Carbonero stands on the pitch prior to the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group C match between Spain and Italy in Gdansk. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
In 2008, for example, I attended a match almost every day. I got to seven of the eight venues and saw almost every team. Here, the group stages were consumed by Ireland. Many of the other games were watched — or not — while trying to send off the latest dispatches from the Irish team. There was always something happening.
Of course, there’s also the fact that there are simply less games now. And that does provide the opportunity to do one of the most interesting things at these events: people watch.
A buzz rippled around the Warsaw media centre the other day, for example, when it became known that Arrigo Sacchi was here to attend Poland-Czech Republic. And, the night before, I’d had the somewhat startling moment to sit down to a steak only to then see a World Cup winner walk: Christian Karembeu. Sadly, he didn’t have his now ex-wife with him.
On that note, there’s one aspect that links Ireland’s presence and absence. Iker Casillas’s girlfriend, Saara Carbonero did, of course, attend the Ireland-Spain match. And it’s incredible how senior journalists who wouldn’t blink at the prospect of Pele walking by queued up to get their picture taken with her.
Otherwise, for all the debates at home, there’s no denying that Ireland’s elimination has made the streets so much emptier. Throughout all of the first round, though, the Polish fans spoke of their awe of the attitude of the Irish fans. And they seem to have adopted some of it.
In both non-Irish games I’ve been to so far, the scores of Polish fans have loudly sung for their own country regardless of who was on the pitch.
At the very least, they’re attempting to make this fractured tournament — from an Irish perspective — one full festival.