The Ghosts of the Beautiful Game

Trra um pum pum. Traa pum pum pum

Blame it on the movies. Every time I approach a stadium, that’s the rhythm my memory plays. The exalted jingle of American baseball.

Tonight is no exception, even though the game is football, the teams are European and the streets are thronging with vodka, scarves and scarlet face paint instead of foam fingers and men in tight white trousers.

Traaa um pum pum pum. Traaa um pump um pum.

I’m in Warsaw, Poland, and I’m heading into the National Stadium for its inaugural game. We’re only 100 days from Euro 2012 and it’s hard not to get carried along with the cracking cold cheer of the crowd.

A young woman sweeps a stroke of white across my cheeks and the moisture traps the coolness of the air. The next stroke brings the red, the colours of Poland (and Portugal, who they’re playing, as it happens, but I don’t mention that. I don’t want to spoil the mood.)

Polish football scarf


Warsaw National Stadium

The stadium walls gleam and embrace the night sky. The spotlights shine. The punters pose. Every inch of darkness is awash with photons: spotlights, flashlights, coach queue headlights.  It’s cold but the noise brings in the heat. The rowdy, raucous, rollercoaster of belonging in a congregation that trembles with pride and overflows with anticipation.

Yet I carry a guilty secret. This is the first professional football match I’ve ever seen. I caught a regional game once in Chile, bodies scrambling over terraces and mounted policemen striking those bodies back down. There’s a rumour I once saw Brighton & Hove Albion play when I was too young to remember, but as anyone who recognises the name will tell you, that doesn’t count for much. As for the rest of you, well, that ignorance rather says the same thing.

One thing I do remember, though, was the Hillsborough Crush, my school-age eyes watching more than 90 people die because people lost all sense of reason in the heat of the beautiful game.

It put me off. And I still feel uneasy about crowds.

One thing I do remember, though, was the Hillsborough Crush

But if there’s one thing you can’t deny, it’s that football has an international appeal. It’s played in over 200 countries, by an estimated 250 million people. It’s the number one sport worldwide and requires an impressively small amount of kit.

It’s a near-universal ice-breaker, from corporate meetings to crotchety consultants, great aunts at weddings to dusty children on the street.

Say the right thing about football and you’re one step closer to finding a new friend.

Poland vs Portugal 2012

Football’s also a multibillion dollar business, of course. Its players are some of the best paid in history (Messi earns over $400 000 a week) overshadowing Hollywood actors, politicians and much lesser mortals like healthcare staff, teachers, policemen and travel bloggers.

When I arrived in communist China at the turn of the century, Tiananmen Square was devoid of advertising, save for the face of one man.

And I’m not talking about Chairman Mao.

It was David Beckham whose face beamed from the buses that trawled through Beijing on that particular day.

Those two simple words, “David” and “Beckham” or those other two “Man” and “United,” have opened more doors for me around the world than any of the recited greetings I’ve gleaned from phrasebooks.

Food may be the way to a man’s heart, but football’’s the better conversation starter.

Food may be the way to a man’s heart, but football’’s the better conversation starter.

So when the invitation came through on that cold February night to catch the game in action, I knew I had to get a better look.

Warsaw, indeed the whole of Poland, had been preparing for this moment. Shoes polished, hair slicked back, timely reminders heeded to wash behind the ears. Euro 2012 takes in sixteen nations and thousands of people and Poland’s co-hosting with the Ukraine marks a watershed in eastern European sport.

Cristiano Ronaldo shakes hands

The Game

Back on the terraces, the excitement pulsed through the stands. The pounding beat of the chants, the shared tomfoolery of the Mexican waves, the hats, the scarves, the swirling melee of face paint and vodka.

We took our seats, swaying in support of our host Poland, until we realised we were sat behind the Portuguese press.

It damped the mood somewhat, bringing us back to reality. For all the songs and all the fireworks, nothing that happened tonight was going to matter at all. Whatever way you looked at it, we were watching a bunch of strangers on a field, chasing a ball.

I felt the paint, cracked and dry on my cheeks; I felt a fool.

But then another illusion appeared as the players streamed on to the pitch, the grounds blazing beneath the fire of celebrity.

We weren’t watching strangers. We were watching superstars! And if football casts a spell, that’s nothing compared to celebrity.

There, in shorts and studded boots, strode Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most famous players in the world.

There, in shorts and studded boots, strode Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most famous players in the world.

The fascination is bizarre. Here is a man who I’ve never met but whose face I’ve seen a thousand times. Without knowing quite how, I can recognise him from afar, from the way he moves. I know he has a son. I know he lived in the UK. I know he winked when a teammate was sent off. I know how much he earns.

And he doesn’t know me at all.

And why do I know all this? Because he’s a man who’s good at kicking a ball.

Celebrity, like football, excites us, yet it’s so very difficult to justify.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, it wasn’t an exciting match and my mind was wandering freely. Nil-nil at half-time when I sought warmth in the food queues; nil-nil at the final whistle when the red and whites flowed jubilant into the streets. Vodka streamed through the bars of Warsaw and conversations came my way on account of the two stripes on my cheek.

We all need tribes, for better and for worse, and tonight I bathed in the best of my adopted tribe. I tasted vodka served with a blade of grass, ate pickled fish on dark rye bread, fended off invites to strip clubs and wandered home happy.

I was no closer to understanding football, nor celebrity, but I really didn’t mind.

I’d seen the best of a sport that had held me for too long in its shadow with the ghosts of that crush in 1989.

Today, Euro 2012 is just around the corner and will be co-hosted between Poland and the Ukraine.

Warsaw is ready. And perhaps, now, so am I.

National Stadium Warsaw

Disclosure: I travelled to Warsaw as a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office.

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25 Responses to The Ghosts of the Beautiful Game

  1. Lane May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    As always, thought provoking. (Except, I will never understand why people enjoy soccer, the most boring game ever played.)

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Shh…Don’t tell anyone but have you seen cricket? It goes on for DAYS! ;)

  2. Steve May 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    I remember getting very upset when England lost a 6 nations to game to Ireland, a good few years ago now. Firstly, as Rugby is indisputably a far better sport in all ways than football, to many Englishmen this will be a perfectly understandable reaction. However, my girlfriend at the time was completely bemused as to why I would care that, and I quote (well, OK, paraphrase….) “15 blokes who you have never met, ran around with a ball and did so slightly better than another bunch of 15 blokes in different coloured shirts” Logically of course, she had a point and I have no counter argument even to this day. Despite this, my advice to anyone who simply cannot understand: the statement “But it’s just a game” really won’t make anything any better!

    Cracking post as ever!

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      She sounds very wise…;)

  3. Ayngelina May 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    One of my favourite things to do when traveling is to see a sports game, especially football as the fans are incredible.

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

      Yep, they can be. They certainly were on this night. But at other times…Sports crowds still make me feel a little nervous.

  4. Jeremy Branham May 3, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    I absolutely love European football. I watch the EPL, Champions League, and highlight shows of all the European matches every weekend. As an American, I am a huge fan of the sport. I’ve seen Barcelona play in Camp Nou. I’ve made sports a huge part of my travels. I love digging deeper into the issues surrounding football and sports and see travel as a way of helping and healing certain problems that we see.

    I am not a fan of Ronaldo. I respect his ability – he has amazing skills and can kick like no one else. However, don’t really like the way he plays or carries himself.

    With that said, I will be watching Euro 2012 this year. I can’t wait!

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

      I hear on the grapevine that football (soccer!) is growing in popularity in the States. Do you think that’s the case? As for Ronaldo, I’d only ever read bad things about his behaviour. It felt quite strange to actually see him and to realise the obvious: he’s a real person. I felt bad – and also a little creepy – to realise that I’d formed an opinion about someone I’d never actually met. Roll on Euro 2012, my roster of adopted teams just keeps on growing! ;)

      • Jeremy Branham May 8, 2012 at 8:02 am #

        I don’t like Ronaldo for all the whining, diving, arrogance, prima donna attitude, and flashy lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong – he’s a great player. He is one of the best in the world. However, a guy that spends too much time in the headlines, gossip pages, and night clubs is just too flashy for me. Portugal does have a good team but you don’t really know which team will show up.

        As for the States, MLS is still continuing to grow. I don’t really watch it though. I love European football because of the quality of play. Football and sports are such a huge part of my travels so when I am not traveling, I do spend time watching sports. As I type this, I am watching European football highlights and analysis from this past weekend :)

        • Abi May 10, 2012 at 10:58 am #

          It sounds as though you should meet my husband! You both have a lot in common ;)

  5. Tally May 3, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    Woohoo! Now you will be hooked. You can come to SJP some time, the cathedral of football for pure entertainment. None of that 0-0 rubbish. Just spectacular passion, like our centre forwards “goal of the season” effort last night.

  6. Erica May 4, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    I want to see a game so badly! We couldn’t afford the $150 pricetag in Buenos Aires – hoping for another place! Beautiful pics!

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks. Not sure I’d have the courage for another one down south after having seen the scenes in Santiago, though!

  7. Stephanie - The Travel Chica May 4, 2012 at 3:29 am #

    I finally went to a futbol game in Argentina. Sports are an important part of travel for some people, and futbol is insanely important to most Argentines. It was good, but I’m not going to pretend that I actually care :-)

    • Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

      Shhh! :)

  8. Abi May 4, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    What was Steve Claridge doing talking about Sarah Jessica Parker? (Oh I crack myself up sometimes…)

  9. Raymond @ Man On The Lam May 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    I’ve actually never seen a live football match, unless you count Canadian football, which most folks don’t. :)

    • Abi May 6, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

      I count any kind of football – although I suspect that many others wouldn’t ;)

  10. dtravelsround May 5, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    I’ve always wanted to go to a football game in Europe!!

    • Abi May 6, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

      There’s still time for Euro 2012!

  11. Clare Appleyard May 10, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Great writing and great pictures Abi! I’ve always been a football fan and love being able to chat Premiership performances with people. It definitely makes conversations easier! A dream of mine was to watch England play in the World Cup, which I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do when South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. Sadly, England’s performance against the USA was shambolic – as was the rest of their tournament. May they fare better in Euro 2012!

    • Abi May 10, 2012 at 10:55 am #

      Oh, yes, don’t remind me. They were absolutely terrible and their behaviour was beyond embarrassing.

      Perhaps that’s another reason why I haven’t followed football so much!

      Still, I admire your well wishes – let’s certainly hope they fare better in Euro 2012!

      • Clare Appleyard May 10, 2012 at 11:16 am #

        Yep, I felt disappointed by the amount I paid for the ticket – and the length of time I queued to get it. There is so much individual skill (and sadly, individual arrogance) it’s tragic that they can’t pull together as one team.

        • Abi May 24, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

          Pfff! Sometimes just exhaling does seem to sum up how I feel about a subject! I agree with you. What a waste…

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