Andrew Allen is deputy editor at sport.co.uk
Every now and then committing to life as a penniless football journalist pays dividends – after roughly two and a half years working at Sport.co.uk I finally received my first invitation to travel abroad on a work related jolly…(cough) I mean business trip.
I say first, I was once offered the salivating prospect of three days in Spain watching beach volleyball…and yes, it did turn out to be too good to be true. I politely declined when it was revealed I was due in the front row of the men’s World Cup for 72 hours of non-stop budgie smuggling action. If I want dodgy male related beach ball antics I’ll just follow Darren Bent’s career. Talking of which, £24 million Monsieur Houllier? What could possibly be the need when you have Emile Heskey waiting in the wings?
Anyway, this time Poland was the destination and UEFA and telecommunications giant Orange were my very affluent hosts. All the boxes were ticked. Return business class flights? Check. 5 star accommodation? Check. Hot PR girl with company credit card and generous attitude towards drinking overpriced vodka shots in hotel bar? Double check. Some extra adds on perhaps not included in the everyday ‘dream scenario’: slightly awkward tour of Warsaw with female Borat impersonator? Yep. A surreal 45 minute chat with Armenia’s answer to John Motson? Yep. Flashy UEFA press conference, awesome all-you-can-eat buffet and Eastern European cheerleaders? Yep, yep, yep. A perfect way to spend 24 hours.
I’ve always been fascinated by Eastern Europe ever since I travelled to Russia on a school trip aged 12. What you see is what you get with the surly Slavs, they’ve perfected the art of shrugging their shoulders in the face of criticism. Just look at Andrey Arshavin every week on the left-wing at Arsenal…
Judging by the ‘through-gritted-teeth’ smiles which most of the UEFA officials were sporting at a press conference to welcome Orange as their latest global sponsor it’s fair to say that the four years since Poland and Ukraine were awarded the right to co-host the European Championships in 2012 have been f***ing hard work for the boys from Nyon. You know…the type of uphill struggle that even Sir Ranulph Fiennes would give a miss.
As if evidence was necessary, a planned tour of Warsaw’s new National Stadium earlier in the day had to be aborted when we arrived to find that the arena was so far from being finished that the architect was still sharpening his pencils and preparing preliminary sketches. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh and this is all a big ploy; as the Daily Mail so often concludes, the Polish builders in this country seem bloody efficient so perhaps they’re just leaving it to the last minute to give themselves a challenge. If they are, they’re doing it at the expense of the health of some of Europe’s most powerful football administrators.
The press conference itself was classic Terry Wogan Eurovision song contest territory. The local television idol-turned master of ceremonies, girls in belts dancing provocatively (you just knew UEFA would follow FIFA’s lead on that), an awkward question and answer session involving various big-wigs and then a media free for all – it had it all. I grabbed five interminably dull minutes with a senior member of the Orange fraternity who had all the looks and mannerisms of a Bond villain before accosting David Taylor, UEFA’s general secretary, for a quick chat about the prospect of Qatar’s proposed winter World Cup screwing up the European football calendar.
Diplomatic to the end he was never going to give a straight up answer, but it was fun watching him squirm for a while. Turns out UEFA haven’t even thought as far ahead as the bidding process for 2020, which begs the question as to why FIFA felt it necessary to choose a host for 2022 so far in advance! Much explored territory, but still mind boggling.
Warsaw, for those of you wondering, is well worth a visit. Somewhat targeted (directly aimed at) by the Nazis during the War, the Poles have done a great job rebuilding the Old Town and it’s pretty obvious that a nation with such a traumatic history is very much looking forward to hosting Europe’s flagship tournament…even if it does come with the possible risk of Germans and Brits fighting in the streets again!
Perhaps the prospect of taking football to new frontiers isn’t so bad after all.