Celebrations and protest as Euro 2012 gets under way
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
WARSHAW, June 8: Euro 2012 being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine got under way on Friday as European football´s showpiece international competition came behind the former Iron Curtain for the first time.
The month-long festival of football started with a 20-minute opening ceremony in front of a capacity 50,000 crowd at Warsaw´s National Stadium, combining music and dance celebrating the eastern European countries´ rich heritage.
Co-hosts Poland take on Greece, the surprise winners of the 2004 competition, in the first of 31 games at eight venues in the two countries, with the final in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on July 1.
Hordes of colourful fans and half-naked female protestors descended on a rain-soaked Warsaw Friday ahead of the kick-off.
The mascots of the Euro 2012 soccer championship run on the field surrounded by young performers before the start of the Group A match between Poland and Greece in Warsaw. (AP)
Supporters, mainly wearing the red and white of Poland, packed Europe´s largest fanzone beneath the Stalin-era Palace of Culture draped in a cheerfully folk-themed "Warsaw Welcomes You" sign.
As the first vuvuzelas of the 16-nation championships blared in the Polish capital fans both young and old flooded into the city centre, some beating drums, others singing, all keen to see Poland clobber Greece at the evening inaugural match.
A torrential rain storm failed to dampen the high spirits among them, some clad in Yeti, octopus and clown costumes, but most sporting Poland´s bright red-and-white.
Femen, Ukraine´s media savvy topless feminists added to the pre-match fever at Warsaw´s brand new national stadium, baring their breasts and screaming "F*** Euro", to denounce the games they claim will lead to a spike in prostitution and sex trafficking in both host countries.
Greece soccer fans cheer for their team as they wait for the start of the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group A match between Poland and Greece in Warsaw. (AP)
"The atmosphere is heating up," said Karol Niedbal, a 27-year-old pharmaceutical company employee, an early bird fan heading to the nearby national stadium with friends hours before the match.
Poland is expecting up to one million fans to pour into the country before the championships wind up in the July 1 final in Ukraine´s capital Kiev.
"This may be the only event on this scale here in our lifetime, it can´t be missed," Tomasz Woldan, a 33-year-old IT specialist, told AFP in the huge square set aside for fans with stands and giant television screens.
While the decision by European football´s governing body UEFA to hold its top tournament in states once behind the Iron Curtain for the first time is showcasing the hosts, concerns over racism, fan safety and political rancour are casting a shadow.
Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel has slammed racist "monkey chants" during a public training session in the southern Polish city of Krakow.
The incident comes on the heels of a warning by former England captain Sol Campbell, who is black, to "stay home, watch it on TV... don´t even risk it" after BBC last month showed football fans in the two countries making Nazi salutes and taunting black players with monkey chants.
Dutch footballing legend Ruud Gullit said Friday in Warsaw he hoped the racist chanting was a one-off "incident" and urged the hosts to overcome the problem.
"The world is watching, you have the possibility to tackle this -- take this opportunity!" he said.
But Ugandan-born fan Rajest Kumar, 52, said Friday he was enjoying himself and felt completely safe as he soaked up the atmosphere near the Warsaw fanzone, the scene of Communist rallies in the old days.
"It´s a good thing for the country. People should know about Poland: the hospitality is great. It´s safe -- a friendly nation, " said Kumar, a social worker who lives in Poland.
Briton Ben Seaman, 44, who was aware of the BBC´s findings on racism in Poland and Ukraine said being in Warsaw was "far better than expected", adding that he was "pleasantly surprised."
"We want England to win, but it´s never going to happen," he said of England´s clash against France Monday in Donetsk, Ukraine.
For the opening match Friday, Seaman is rooting for the Poles, saying, "It´d be a good start to Euro 2012."
Politics are also casting a shadow with senior British and European Commission officials deciding to miss games in Ukraine in protest at Kiev´s treatment of former premier and opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed on abuse-of-power charges she staunchly refutes.
Average fans, however, saw things differently.
"These kind of events bring people and nations together," Pole Konrad Trzeciak, 30, told AFP. He was however not as optimistic when it came to Poland´s performance on the pitch.
"I don´t think Poland will win but it might make it out of the group -- that happens once in a thousand years," he added.
But the home side might be inspired to do better by what some have dubbed Poland´s secret weapon, in the form of a troupe of merry grannies belting out the cheery, if kitschy, Poland theme song, "Koko Euro Spoko".
Based on a traditional tune, both the folksy singers and farm-yard lyrics are drawing chuckles as the title loosely translates to ´Cockadoodledoo Euro Cool."