From Houston to Gdansk, my diary of Euro 2012's first weekend
Spain and Italy's 1-1 draw was the best way to kick off the start of Euro 2012
As the author traveled to Poland, Argenina and Brazil fans take over New York
Stateside and beyond, soccer's influence is obvious with fans around the world
GDANSK, Poland -- It was the game of the tournament so far in Euro 2012, a thrillingly open back-and-forth between the champions of World Cup 2010 (Spain) and World Cup 2006 (Italy). And when the smoke finally cleared, both sides came away with a point in a 1-1 tie that featured fascinating tactics (Spain's six starting midfielders; Italy's three-man back line), aggravating misses (Fernando Torres' miscues; Mario Balotelli's Leon Lett impression) and first-rate goalkeeping by two of the world's best, Iker Casillas and Gigi Buffon.
Spain's Cesc FÓbregas told me afterward how important it was to get the equalizer quickly after Antonio Di Natale's 61st-minute goal, and it only took three minutes for FÓbregas to dart into the box and poke a seeing-eye David Silva pass into the Italian net. The goal provided some long-awaited validation that the surprising Spanish strategy of not starting a traditional center-forward could bear fruit as long as there was enough speed and dynamism in Vicente del Bosque's front line.
Even with Croatia's victory over Ireland in the other group game, both Spain and Italy should be well-situated to get out of the group. I'm just glad that these two teams delivered an entertaining game after the dreary 0-0 affair in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals that Spain won on penalties. In fact, you could say Spain-Italy was a perfect ending to a weekend that reminds you how much soccer matters in the U.S. these days. Here's my running diary of the events:
7:45 p.m. CT, Friday
HOUSTON -- It's a fact of life: Big soccer tournaments happen in June, and so do a lot of weddings. U.S. stars Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan left the Gold Cup briefly last year to attend family weddings on the same night, and you often hear fun stories of unexpected national-team call-ups causing players to change their own wedding plans. Now it's my turn to skip the U.S.'s first World Cup 2014 qualifier for something more important: the nuptials of my brother- and sister-in-law. (Congrats, Stephanie and Eric!)
Thanks to the ubiquity of soccer on U.S. TV these days, it's still a day full of soccer. I spent the afternoon watching the first two games of Euro 2012 on ESPN, which is showing every match live. And in perhaps a sign of soccer's growing popularity, several guys at the wedding bar are asking me the score of the U.S.-Antigua & Barbuda game. (One even wonders if I'm live-tweeting it; I look at my wife and tell him I left my phone in the car on purpose.) The Yanks go on to win 3-1 in what won't be the only wedding-soccer confluence of the weekend. Instead of celebrating my 11th anniversary with my wife on Saturday night, I'll be on a plane to the Euro in Poland. (Don't worry, we had our anniversary dinner a week earlier.) Did I ever tell you that my wife doesn't like sports? Our friends think it's kind of funny.
1:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
NEW YORK CITY -- Alarms at 5 a.m. on the mornings after weddings are never fun, but there's a long travel day ahead. The soccer, of course, never stops. On a quick side-trip home to get my bags for Poland, I'm walking through Penn Station watching Netherlands-Denmark on my phone and weaving my way through a giant horde of fans in Argentina and Brazil jerseys heading out to MetLife stadium for a sold-out friendly between the Lionel Messi-led Argentines and Neymar-led Brazilians.
Messi ends up scoring a hat-trick in Argentina's ridiculously fun 4-3 victory. I go home to pack and watch a pair of 1-0 wins by Denmark (upsetting the Dutch) and Germany (over Portugal). The Group of Death, already intriguing to start, is now even more fascinating. As for Messi, the three-time World Player of the Year, his trips Stateside are sort of like visits by the Pope; they're not to be missed. But could you believe Messi is coming back to the U.S. again later this month? He'll be in Miami for one of those all-star barnstorming events (with Didier Drogba, Radamel Falcao, Clint Dempsey, etc.) that seem like they're not totally legit but which I'm told should come off just fine.
9:55 p.m. ET, Saturday
SOMEWHERE OVER MAINE -- If you're comparing long-distance trips to see soccer games, this one probably can't match the 44-hour door-to-door journey to Cabinda, Angola, to see Ghana play Ivory Coast in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. But that doesn't mean this is a typical trip. For starters, I'm flying to Gdansk, Poland (site of Spain-Italy), through Oslo, Norway, of all places, mainly because there weren't any connecting flights available from other European cities on game day. My airport itinerary -- IAH-EWR-OSL-GDN -- looks less like a travel plan than a terrible Scrabble rack.
But there are other things floating through my mind:
1. If I'm making my Fox Soccer Channel debut tomorrow, I'd better get some sleep. Instead of using an airplane pillow, I'm trying something new suggested by my doctor wife: A foam cervical collar. She says it's great for your neck, but I'm trying to get over looking like a whiplash victim seeking punitive damages.
2. I've just received a code to watch the U.S.-Guatemala World Cup qualifier legally online at 4 a.m. Poland time in Wednesday's wee hours. Score!
3. The guy in front of me is challenging my coach-class motto: Just because you can recline your seat doesn't mean you should. (I enjoyed reading in Frank Deford's recent memoir that SI writers always used to fly in first class. Let's just say those days are long gone.)
4. I've finally hooked up my Slingbox at home, so I'll be able to watch U.S. broadcasts of the Euro. But it also hits me that if my wife's watching TV at the same time then it's no Slingbox for me. (Remember, she's not a sports fan.)
5. In the excitement of watching the Germany-Portugal game, I forgot to pack any pants. (I swear this isn't my first trip to cover a tournament abroad, however much it may sound like it.)
10:30 a.m. CET, Sunday
OSLO, Norway -- Reason No. 872 why I love Twitter: Upon landing and tweeting that it appears Manny Pacquiao got robbed in his controversial title-defense loss, who responds to my post but Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton. He's unhappy as well, so I virtually introduce him to SI boxing writer Chris Mannix, who was covering the fight in Vegas. Joey, Chris. Chris, Joey. Arriving at the gate for my connection to Gdansk, I meet a cute Spanish couple rocking matching Juan Mata national-team jerseys. Otherwise, the plane is mostly full of Polish dudes.
12:45 p.m. CET, Sunday
GDANSK, Poland -- Nearly 22 hours after leaving Houston's Bush Airport, I arrive at Walesa Airport (named for the famous Polish Solidarity leader) with five hours to spare before the Spain-Italy kickoff. Chris Kurylowicz, Fox Soccer's intrepid Polish fixer, picks me up, and instantly I can tell he's good at what he does (and a nice guy to boot). Bearded and street-smart, Chris speaks Polish, German, Russian, English and even some Arabic, and he's adept at persuading Polish cops that we have the right pass to use the special UEFA lanes and avoid traffic. Chris and the other FSC guys -- reporter/producer Keith Costigan and camera/editor Mario Arredondo -- have already traveled 1,200 miles around Poland this week, an impressive feat considering this is only Day 3 of the tournament.
10:20 p.m. CET, Sunday
GDANSK -- Some initial observations about Poland: 1. Poles are extremely friendly. 2. The stadium here, which is very cool, looks like a jaundiced version of Munich's Allianz Arena. 3. The media operation is a lot like every other one I've seen at Euros and World Cups. Which is to say, we go after games to a press conference (where coaches and players sit at a podium, and their interviews are translated) and a "mixed zone," in which players walk along a short barricade next to the media as they make their way to the team bus. The mixed zone is world sport's alternative to locker-room interviews, with the important exception that the players are almost always moving and don't have to speak at all. The Spanish team is particularly adept at doing radio interviews on cellphones with people who haven't spent money to be on-site, as opposed to the media right in front of them.
That's O.K., I guess. I get to speak to FÓbregas and Daniele De Rossi, who had a fine game in the center of Italy's defense. My first day of Euro 2012 is in the books, and the weekend couldn't have been any more memorable.
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