KRAKOW, Poland – Monday afternoon, I rounded a corner in the historic center of the city and ran smack into Roy Hodgson. Down the street there were a pack of baying fans cordoned off from a bus being loaded up with all his team's gear, ready for the long flight home. It should go without saying that Mr. Hodgson did not appear to be a happy man.
He was not alone: Krakow didn't seem pleased with the result, either. All across the city, the signs for the Euros were coming down. The old market in Stare Miasto, packed to the gills just the night before, was quickly emptying out. The TV crews were packing up their rigging -- there were more cargo shorts per square inch than at a Cubs game-- and the WAGs were busily carrying their shopping bags into cabs and limos of various stripes. What this meant was plain for the folks in the center of the town who depend on visitors for their paychecks: the gravy train was leaving the station.
Krakow was once the capital of Poland, and it remains one of the world's most beautiful cities. It, however, also has an air of desperation about it. The placards that were being put up to replace yellow Euro flags: "Krakow: Not Just A City of Old Monuments."
The problem is that Krakow is a tourist mecca, and in this age of austerity, the Euros were keeping the city's merchants in the black. By Tuesday, that square was so empty you could have staged a demolition derby in the middle of it, and the debris wouldn't have even nicked a bystander. If the hoards of young people trying to usher you into their restaurants and onto their tour buses are any measure, the city needs visitors to survive.
Unfortunately, Krakow didn't win much favor in this tournament. The Dutch were racially taunted as they trained at Wisla Krakow's grounds by hundreds of "fans." This turned the spotlight on Wisla's fans and the violent subculture that surrounds the team. Sadly, a team that once had a large and rich Jewish heritage now has fans who spray-paint swastikas about the city. (I was offered an unofficial Wisla shirt, with a white power symbol on it, at the main train station.)
It's hard to reconcile this ugliness with what is one of the most gorgeous and well-preserved cities in this country. It is so fetching that a number of teams - England, Italy and Netherlands among them - chose it as their home base and were rightly applauded for doing so. More than one of us asked before the tournaments why a city with not one but two excellent stadiums - Wisla plays in a UEFA Category 4 ground; Cracovia has a category 3 stadium right across a city park - wasn't chosen to host a few games.
And yet, there is something off about Krakow. Warsaw has World War II memorials every few hundred yards and a crumbling skyline - yet feels like a progressive place. In contrast, Krakow seems preserved in amber. It's quite lovely to look at, but underneath that gloss is another matter.
In Warsaw, people have spoken quite directly about the problems this tournament exposed, candidly discussing and decrying the far-right, anti-Semitic attitudes of the hooligans that surround the game. Moreover, they have been willing to acknowledge that some of these attitudes are, in fact, more widespread than some would care to admit, and that the country faces a battle to confront them in the here and now.
Not so in Krakow. When the Dutch were taunted, the mayor claimed it was merely fans protesting against UEFA's decision not to award the city a game. That was not only a laughable statement, it was an alarming one.
UEFA has been criticized for not awarding any games to such a beautiful and internationally known city, but I am starting to think the reason they didn't give the town a few games is that they saw the same things I did in Krakow. They saw the graffiti amidst the palaces and cathedrals, and they felt some of the chill seeping out between the cracks in that old mortar.