Welcome to Warsaw! Euro 2012 is slowly cranking into life after yesterday’s bank holiday in the Polish capital; victory for the hosts over Greece in this evening’s match may be the tonic the tournament needs to capture the imagination of the Polish people.
A few Polish flags were visible on my journey to the stadium this morning but you could easily be forgiven for thinking the opening match of the tournament was taking place in another city. It was similar to Switzerland four years ago, when the Swiss public took their time to get into the tournament.
With little in the way of tournament fever on display, it is hard to believe that Poland coach Franciszek Smuda is feeling the pressure. But Smuda’s assistant Jacek Zielinski said yesterday that his boss was “like a fox in a cage” with the hopes of 36 million Poles resting on his shoulders.
That pressure may well have played a factor in Poland playing pre-tournament friendlies against Slovakia and Latvia outside of the country, in Klagenfurt, Austria. Only their final warm-up match, a 4-0 victory over Andorra, was played in Warsaw.
Against Greece, much will depend on striker Robert Lewandowski, who is in fine form after playing a key role in Borussia Dortmund’s second successive Bundesliga triumph. Smuda claimed today, in an interview with daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, that Lewandowski is on the verge of joining Manchester United.
Lewandowski may well have been watched by Alex Ferguson at last month’s German Cup Final, although the United boss was also watching his new signing Shinji Kagawa. Or it could have been an attempt by Smuda to deflect attention from the pressure he is facing.
Either way, Smuda could not have wished for better opposition in the opening match than Greece, arguably the weakest of the 16 teams in the tournament. Lewandowski – and his team-mates – will not have a better chance to show the world his talents.
I can’t remember a tournament where so many players have been ruled out through injury even before a ball has been kicked. England are leading the way, with injuries ruling Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard, John Ruddy and Gary Cahill, and with doubts over Scott Parker and John Terry hamstring.
However, they are not alone. Croatia have lost striker Ivica Olic, while France are sweating on the fitness of midfielder Yann M’Vila.
The injuries have led some to question training methods and fitness regimes. One vocal critic has been Raymond Verheijen, a fitness specialist who worked with Guus Hiddink when he was in charge of South Korea and Russia, as well as Gary Speed’s Wales, and is now a member of Dick Advocaat’s coaching staff with Russia.
Verheijen was critical of England’s intensive training methods, claiming they could have contributed to Terry’s hamstring problems. “Why did they train so hard after long season?” Verheijen asked on Twitter. “Players who have won the Premier League or even the Champions League don’t need intensive training. They are top fit and only need freshness.
Verheijen has not singled out England for criticism. “What’s going on in the Italian camp with all these muscle injuries?” he asked “Typical Italian training methods?”.
He also dubbed his native Holland “amateur” for the way defender Joris Mathijssen picked up a hamstring injury hours after a plane flight to Poland. “Players have travelled today by plane some might have stiff hamstrings. Therefore, they will start with an extensive warmup.
“This way, we will avoid amateur injuries like with Dutch defender Joris Mathijssen.”
There don’t seem to be many Greek fans in Warsaw to support their team ahead this evening’s opening match. Greece’s economic woes seem to have put paid to that.
The only Greek fans I’ve seen were in a car that screeched to a halt on the main dual carriageway outside the stadium. The car stuck its hazard warning lights on and then proceeded to reverse back along the road. Another example of Greece being out of step with the rest of Europe?
It was something of a surprise to find no hot food on sale at the media centre in Warsaw. The McDonalds McCafe is selling pastries and coffees but little else. When I asked if they had anything hot, they offered to warm up a croissant.
Apparently, it is the same situation with the McCafe in Kiev, although a colleague Nick Ames tweeted to say that “oddly foggy soup” is available in the media centre in Kharkiv. A shame that Kharkiv does not feature on my schedule.
I’m not looking for sympathy but an army marches on its stomach and if UEFA keeps the media well-fed, half the battle is won.
Not for the first time, it’s sponsors 1 media 0.
By Gavin Hamilton