HAVANA (AP) – Inflatable stadia that looked like kiddie pools? Check. A giant piano? Check. Flash cards across the stadium? Got that, too. And: an unexpected downpour that utterly failed to dampen Polish spirits. No pun intended? Yep.
The Euros flashed to life tonight in the Polish capital in a riot of red and white. If the opening was kitsch, the end wasn't. We ended up with a human caravan at least a mile long and a city celebrating what some thought impossible: a successful opening to Europe's grandest national showcase.
I don't think anyone looked at tonight's opening draw and said, "yep, games with Greece , Poland and the Czechs are gonna be barnburners." But that is what they were. They were tense, thrilling and even if they were not the most technically astute, they were a heck of a lot of fun.
Over in Wroclaw, the supposedly "slow" Russians - I merely quote Andrey Arshavin -- were busy teaching the Czechs what that word means in Moscow. Apparently "slow" means running circles around your opponent, because that is what the in fact speedy, clever and far better Russians did to the Czechs all night long.
Here in Warsaw, we learned two things: the first is that the Greeks cannot play defense. So much for Otto Rehhagel. The second thing is that Poles cannot play defense either, much to the hosts' chagrin and the Greeks' delight. A draw was fair even if how they got there was peculiar.
We also learned that the Poles - portrayed in some quarters as unthinking hooligans with nasty tendencies - are actually quite thoughtful and wonderful fans. (The motto here is not to believe everything you read in Britain.) You might have thought that, had the Poles failed to win this game, the very pavement of Warsaw also would have cracked, swallowing all of soccer with it. Um, no. As I write this, at midnight, the hosts are still managing to celebrate a draw.
If the Euros can live up to the opening night, then we are in for the type of treat that has eluded us for the past few years. Let's be frank: the 2010 World Cup was terrible, the 2008 Euros were forgettable. (Does anyone care about the Gold Cup? I thought not.) The fact that no one gave Eastern Europe a chance makes it even more delicious.
Yes, there are problems. Krakow, Kiev, and here in Warsaw have had some ugly incidents. I'd point out that so did Loftus Road, and so did Anfield. That's not an excuse - it's a reminder that some problems cross national boundaries and a lot of work needs to be done. It's also a reminder that we shouldn't tar a nation with a broad brush. After all, we don't blame all of England for the acts John Terry is alleged to have committed.
Tonight, Warsaw shone. Tomorrow, Lviv and Kharkiv get their chances to as well. Let's hope they light it up.