The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
It’s over between me and Poland. I would like to state that more graphically. The cold hard bluish toes of my enthusiasm for Poland are poking indecently out of the autopsy blanket that’s covering the rest of the corpse. You know you’ve picked the wrong team to follow in Euro 2008 when your hard drive suddenly turns into an Ozymandias desert of ruined data and you find yourself thinking things like, “Wow, I’m glad I have no choice but to spend the next four hours painstakingly extracting fragments of source code with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass, because otherwise I’d have to write a preview of the Poland-Croatia match.” At that point you make bleak confessions to yourself and come to terms with having made a mistake.
It wasn’t their failure to win a game that turned me away; I never really expected them to get through the group stage. It’s just hard to find anything to like about a Polish team whose only scoring threat is a Brazilian who has no ties to Poland, and whose rushed naturalization—by the president! just in time for the tournament!—led to widespread disapproval even from Polish fans. It’s hard to find anything to like about a team whose only goal so far was a gift from the referee, who allowed their crypto-Brazilian striker to score (against the worst team in the tournament, no less) from an outrageously offside position. And it’s painfully hard to find anything to like about a team whose fans turn savagely on the same referee when he awards a perfectly defensible penalty to their opponents in the final minutes of the game, to the point that death threats start showing up on YouTube and popular soccer sites have to close their comments sections as they’re inundated with hundreds of messages “aiming sexual abuse and death threats towards the English referee and claiming that Webb had taken bribes to give that penalty.”
It’s just not my style. I’m not naive about the magnetic power football exerts over the sort of mind that is likely to view issuing death threats over the internet as a valid way to relieve itself, and I realize that being a fan means you’re going to find yourself standing on the same side of the line as a lot of people whose philosophy fills you with an image of the world as a chemical spill. Most of the time, you can’t do anything about it. But when you’ve picked a team for a few weeks solely to make one tournament a little more fun to follow, you can, and I am, and bye.
It was never, as they say in Greek drama, supposed to end up like this. I followed Poland loosely through the qualifying rounds, where they surprised everyone by beating Portugal and finishing at the top of their group. At that point—this was before they started importing Brazilians—they looked like a tight, patient, somewhat erratic side who always stood a chance thanks to their outstanding corps of goalkeepers (Artur Boruc from Celtic, Tomasz Kuszczak from Man Utd, and Lukasz Fabianski from Arsenal, all of whom I really like) and the unpredictable offensive ability of of Euzebiusz Smolarek. Their coach was Leo Beenhakker, a gaunt Dutchman who looked like wisdom emerging from death and who had a resume that covered 23 teams in 36 years, from Real Madrid to Trinidad and Tobago. He was an ideal amalgam of cold competence, pride, and self-undoing restlessness: someone definitely worth spending time with. Beenhakker had not only led Poland to their first-ever European Championship berth, he’d done so while openly advertising his ability to find overlooked talent within the Polish domestic league system, which meant that he’d somehow convinced the whole country that Poland could matter as a football power in a way they hadn’t since the 80s. They stayed in the back of my mind as a group to pay attention to coming into Euro 2008.
Then, at some point in the build-up to the tournament, an invisible threshold was crossed, and things started to get crazy. I don’t know exactly what it was; maybe a combination of the coach needing it a little too much (Beenhakker has never won a match at a major tournament, although some of his accomplishments—leading Trinidad to a draw against Sweden in the World Cup, for example—are arguably more impressive) and the country needing it a little too much. Beenhakker forced the hurried naturalization of Roger Guerreiro, the Polish Brazilian, and furiously attacked anyone who argued with the decision, insisting bizarrely that it was Guerreiro’s “dream” to play for Poland even as Guerreiro was openly considering a move to Russia or Israel. But it was probably when the Group B draw came through, and it was revealed that Poland would be playing Germany in the first game of their first European Championship, that the bad electricity really started surging.
As you may have heard somewhere, Germany invaded Poland in 1939, setting off the Second World War and instituting a years-long occupation during which Poland lost a fifth of its pre-war population. A huge section of Warsaw was turned into a Jewish ghetto where hundreds of thousands of people starved to death, were shot, or were sent to death camps. This isn’t the history of a shallow or easily reconciled resentment. Mass hatred is never the most accurately calibrated emotion, but it can be atmospheric and persuasive, especially when—and this is certainly the case in Poland—it arises not through some centralized tactic of state nationalism, but simply as a sudden resurgence of collective memory.
In any case, describing the Polish attitude toward Germany as one of “mass hatred” might, today, be a little too strong. But tabloid covers in the country started appearing with unusually grotesque photographs: Beenhakker about to decapitate a leering Michael Ballack in a Prussian military helmet; Beenhakker holding the severed heads of Ballack and Jogi Löw. Whether history was being used as a metaphor for the intensity of a footballing rivalry, or a footballing rivalry was being used as a metaphor for the intensity of history, didn’t really matter. The language, the conviction, and the frustration (Poland had never beaten Germany in 75 years of competitive matches, and was extremely unlikely to do so now) had brought on a dangerous state of mind, a paradoxical blend of pessimism and high hopes that seemed to open onto all sorts of possibilities.
It was at this point that I looked into this mess and, like a drunken Lindsay Lohan confronted with a wall of flashbulbs, said “Yes, please.” I was in the room with all the bad signs, but the lights were reeling and they all had interesting reflections: three of Germany’s players had been born in Poland, for instance, and the WWII stuff was bound to have a (possibly morally unsettling, but still real) sharpening effect, as long as it wasn’t taken too far. And the swirl of pressure, fear, opportunity, controversy and blind chance around the team was bound to be intoxicating heading into the first match, and I couldn’t think of a grander or grimier first-round story than the one about how they’d react to it.
But then the sand started falling and…they didn’t really react. You could see the crisp line of tension as the Germany match began, but it was oddly manifest more in Beenhakker’s tactics—starting out with that inexplicably high back four, then failing to adjust as Germany flew past the defense into open space time and time again—than in the boldness or terror of the men in white and red. The players collectively had a weird air of skeptical endurance, as if they thought their moment might come, but saw no reason to think it was coming now. The commentators tried to make something of the fact that Poland took more shots than Germany, but the only reason that stat was true was that Lewandowski kept trying toothless 30-yarders—four of them in the match, with very little danger of beating Lehmann.
Poland lost, and that was fine; they deserved to lose. It stung that they’d given up two goals to Podolski, one of Germany’s Poland-born stars, but there was no way to complain about that without then having to explain away the Guerreiro situation and, really, to challenge the entire concept of voluntary immigration (since unlike Guerreiro, who’d never set foot in Eastern Europe before he went to play in Poland, Podolski had moved to his new country when he was two). On the whole, the fans seemed to bear it pretty well, probably because they had Austria, by consensus the weakest team in the Euros, in their next match, while their main rivals for qualification, Croatia, had to play Germany. There was still good reason to hope.
Hope took a doomsday blow yesterday when Croatia shocked Germany, guaranteeing their own qualification in the process. Poland would now have to pass Germany on points to make the quarters. But even that wasn’t impossible; a solid win against Austria would draw them level. Then, if they could somehow beat Croatia in the last game, they’d have a roughly even chance to go through.
The Austria match and its aftermath unfolded as an improbable sequence of events in which: 1) Austria utterly dominated the first part of the game, but missed four easy chances in the first fifteen minutes due to a combination of inept striking and brilliant play by Boruc; 2) Guerreiro gave Poland an undeserved lead after referee Howard Webb allowed him to score from a position nearly a yard offside; 3) Austria tied the match with a penalty in stoppage time after Webb halted a free kick to warn the players about fouling in the box, after which Wasilewski committed a foul anyway; 4) Beenhakker blamed Webb for costing Poland the match, even though he’d allowed Guerreiro’s goal to stand; 5) Poland fans started unleashing disturbing and violent anti-Webb rants and videos online; 6) British police began facing questions about protection options for Webb given the gruesome nature of the reaction; and 7) the Polish prime minister defused a tense situation by publicly declaring that he “wanted to kill” Howard Webb and that the penalty was “an obvious mistake.” He was probably joking about the first part. But with the way the story was reported, it really made no difference.
It wasn’t much of a foul; no argument on that point here. But it was a foul, a tug of the shirt of a kind that, frustratingly, Webb had ignored for most of the match but that still fell outside the rules. And more significantly: attacking the referee when your entire offense in the tournament was due to a refereeing error is like attacking oxygen when you’re living on the wind. A fairly adjudicated match might have finished 0-1 in favor of Austria, or it might have finished 0-0. It would not have finished 1-0 in favor of Poland. I do sympathize with the uncontrollable passion of a prime minister, but I have to say what I saw.
It’s one too many death threats, Poland. I’m not new to this, and I know what happens in international football. But you’re the one who’s making it happen today, and it’s one too many chopped-off heads, prayerful eviscerations, and longed-for deeds of revenge. I’m not begrudging you your grudges—and if anything’s clear from this account, it’s that Howard Webb is bearing part of the brunt of your historical agon with Germany: I’ve seen more than one video portraying him as Hitler—but I do intend not to share them. I came to this tournament looking for the desperate, the ragged, and the beautiful. I thought that was you, but it wasn’t, and your vampire diving bell can sink just as well without me. I’ll leave you to it, Poland, while you spin in your bloody-minded ball. You still have a chance to advance, but I won’t be rejoining you on the other side. Thanks for making me think about the psychic costs of fandom, and in some ways reconfirming me in my bachelor view of this sport. I’ll remember the smell of kerosene, the staggered gray clouds, and the sound of a match being struck. We’ll do it again sometime, or not, if I ever feel like dark accusations and sweaty revolutions that fail.
by Brian Phillips · June 13, 2008