Trip Diary: EuroCup Part II

What a week! I have A LOT to cover. Since I last wrote, I went to Portugal vs Czech Republic in Warsaw, Greece vs Germany in Gdansk, watched two matches in the Warsaw fan zone and an England loss at a huge sports bar in London, and had three nights where I saw the sunrise. I shared drinks, meals, and/or conversations with people from America, Canada, Bulgaria, Poland, Finland, Russia, Norway, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Here are some of the highlights:

Czech Republic vs Portugal in Warsaw

Like Ireland vs Italy, this was a match where it was clear after about 10 minutes that the Czech Republic’s best chance to win would come from a 120-minute 0-0 tie followed by a shoot-out victory; it just looked like they could play for 10 hours and not score except via a fluky breakaway or penalty. Portugal’s goal came on a beautiful Cristiano Ronaldo header that bounced up off the ground at about a 45-degree angle and took a short hop over the Czech goalie. The timing, strength, and coordination of this goal were unfathomable:

To make it even better, the goal happened RIGHT in front of us. For this game, I was supposed to sit by myself but was struck by unbelievably good fortune. Kevin, my dad’s friend who invited me on the trip, was having issues connecting with the person he bought his tickets from on Ebay. They were supposed to meet by the stadium but the scalper’s phone was dead for an hour as repeated calls and text messages went unreturned. During this fiasco, we ran into a ticket broker from Toronto who I had met on the train back from Auschwitz the day before. He set us up with someone who had 8th-row seats which would have been between the 20- and 30-yard lines on an NFL field. These three seats ended up being in the same section as those he was supposed to buy and were seven rows closer to the field. Also, the three tickets were 150 euros cheaper in total than the two that he was supposed to buy.

The reason that these seats cost so much less at this point than when Kevin originally bought them is because Russia was expected to play in the game but got upset in the qualifying round. Russian fans had bought up tickets for more than half the stadium and were forced to liquidate them. While there were WAY more sellers than buyers a couple hours before kickoff, most of the tickets got bought up by Polish fans who flooded the stadium and made their presence felt much more than the Czech or Portugese fans.

Greece vs Germany in Gdansk

One of the reasons that the EuroCup is so cool is that by virtue of their geography, each nation has fascinatingly intertwined history with each other. Whether there’s been wars (like the upcoming Spain-Portugal match) or something like the broader economic implications surrounding this Greece-Germany battle, there’s always something. When your countries have had centuries of conflict, soccer matches take on a deeper meaning.

While there were more Greek fans than we were expecting, they were still outnumbered about 3:1 by the Germans. Before the match, two German men about my age were taking forever at the ATM. Because I was in sort of a hurry to get cash then get to the stadium and ATM transactions should NEVER take more than 30 seconds, I got annoyed after a minute and said, “Come on, it’s not that hard!”

“You seem stressed,” one of them said condescendingly.

It went on like that for a little while longer and transformed me from dispassionate observer to ardent Greece supporter for the game. Nothing is more powerful than sports-hate. Unfortunately, I would not have too much to cheer about. The German offense was beautiful. Methodical and efficient with a soft touch, their ball movement was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like watching the San Antonio Spurs during their recent 20-game winning streak, only if they were also playing 5-on-4. There was always an open man and you got the feeling that Germany could score at will in their 4-2 victory.

Here’s the view from our seats, which was once again magnificent:

I almost didn’t get to sit in them; before the game, I was supposed to meet Kevin at a landmark that it turned out I would have needed a ticket to get to. About 40 minutes before kickoff, not having found Kevin and unable to reach him because I didn’t have a working phone (this being the last day of the trip, I finally lost the gamble I made in not purchasing a pay-as-you-go burner upon arrival), I panicked bought a ticket behind the goal for about $60. Luckily, after about 15 people looked at me strangely and said no, a nice woman let me email Kevin from her phone. I told him where my seats were and he came and found me right before kick-off.

England vs Italy at Sports Cafe in London

With a 17-hour layover at Heathrow on my way back from Poland yesterday, I ventured into the city. After a stop at Camden Market–think Hot Topic mixed with New York City’s Chinatown–I headed downtown to Sports Cafe, a massive sports bar in Piccadilly Circus that I spent a lot of time at four years ago during my semester abroad.

Stepping into the place immediately brought back some bad sports memories; it’s where I watched the worst Packers defeat of my life–the 2008 NFC Championship Game against the Giants where Brett Favre had the ball in overtime with a chance to go to the Super Bowl but threw an interception to Corey Webster (it’s close but it’s a little bit worse than the 4th-and-26 game). This was also where I watched Wisconsin’s NCAA tournament game against Davidson where the heavily favored Badgers got blown out 73-56 as Stephen Curry dropped 33 points. Thinking about those games, combined with the suffocatingly high temperature in the bar, made me a little bit nauseous in the hour leading up to kickoff.

As you might imagine but much, much more, the English fans were into it. They were already chanting when I got there and didn’t stop until the game was over. This was about as intense as a 120-minute 0-0 tie could possibly be leading into the shootout–it was two or three times as loud as a Packers playoff game at Will’s Northwoods Inn.

As Italy failed time and again to convert on its scoring opportunities–they hit the post twice and mis-executed on timing and open looks too many times to count–it felt like it would be one of those NFL games where one team dominates yardage and time of possession but keeps settling for field goals, has an untimely turnover, gives up a special teams touchdown, and looks up at the scoreboard in disbelief after a crushing loss. And now it was time for a shootout. Could England actually survive this?

Through two rounds of shooters, England was up 2-1 and people were celebrating riotously, throwing chairs all over the place with a mosh pit resembling that of a Pantera concert. But the next two English shooters were stopped as the next three Italians scored, sealing the victory. The range of emotions in those three minutes–from the greatest heights of jubilation to the lowest depths of despair–can only happen in sports. Even as the English fans were cautiously optimistic headed into the game, they got so tightly wrapped up in the match that they let their guards all the way down. And they got absolutely crushed.

Having felt the exact same emotions during that Packers game four years earlier, I knew what it was like to walk down those stairs with knees that don’t want to carry you, out those doors into the cruel world while replaying the final seconds over and over in your head, trying to figure out what you did to deserve this hell instead of the exact opposite. “Why on Earth is this what I do for fun?” every single one of them wondered in their heads as they moved slowly and dejectedly onto Haymarket Street.

The loss will hurt for awhile and then the sting will subside. But it will never go away–last night, I felt the burn of a Packers loss that happened even as they’ve since won a Super Bowl. Tough losses get better but they’ll stay a part of your inner fabric for eternity. We tell ourselves that we’ll shield our emotions better going forward. Hedge our bets. Know that defeat can be snatched from certain victory in a matter of moments. But we’re delusional and deep down we know that those are idle threats. Masochistically, we’ll keep coming back for more. And English soccer fans will have any number of opportunities to do so with the World Cup, the EuroCup, and their Premiership teams to give them heartbreak so much more often than exultation.

This is why the journey matters–the anticipation for big games, the time spent on road trips and in bars with close friends, the embraces and high fives with people who were strangers five minutes ago but are like your brother now because you both want the same thing so badly. Added up, these things have to outweigh the anguish of losing or watching sports makes less sense than playing the lottery. They do, though. And if the English fans do ever get their glory, the roller coaster ride will be more than worth it.

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