Early Doors

A tournament of two halves?

Early Doors

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Jakub Blaszczykowski's stunning strike against Russia last night was not exactly Andriy Shevchenko's two magical goals for Ukraine, but it provided co-hosts Poland with their best moment of Euro 2012 so far.

Still though, the arrest of nearly 200 people beforehand on the streets of Warsaw served to overshadow the moment, ensuring that even as Poland enjoyed an element of sporting success, events off the pitch continued to dog the country.

In that respect, this has very much been a tournament of two halves.

Early Doors is located in Ukraine for the group stages, where despite some well-publicised fears, there has been basically no trouble to speak of. The locals are generally friendly - unless you try and haggle for a taxi in the early hours - the stadiums welcoming and fans of all nationalities have been able to go about their business unmolested.

The closest ED has seen to an eruption of violence was in a Kharkiv hostel when the most aggressive snorer in the history of mankind continued rattling air through his throat for well over an hour. Had ED had a water cannon to hand, it would have plastered the guilty man all over the wall.

Europe's biggest grudge match takes place tonight in the city — Netherlands v Germany — so this situation may yet change, but so far the tournament has passed off without real incident in this corner of south-east Europe.

Fears of racism loomed over the start of the tournament in Ukraine, yet as its director Markiyan Lubkivskyi said in Kiev this week: "Nobody made any comments to us regarding racism - no players, no teams, no fans."

Early Doors would underline there is no room for complacency in such serious matters, yet so far in the four games that have taken place in the country, the behaviour of fans has been largely exemplary.

This is in stark contrast to what has occurred in Poland.

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Last night's clashes between Russia and Poland fans — provoked by a match held by the former to celebrate Russia Day amid political tensions between the two countries — saw riot police deployed and tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons used to subdue those intent on causing trouble.

"There are more than 183 hooligans caught by the police because of disorders in Warsaw - firstly during the march to National Stadion, secondly in the Fanzone in Plac Defilad Square," read a police statement.

"Among the kept persons there are fans of both teams - Russian and Polish. The police operation is still lasting. The police officers are checking the surveillance system, police cameras and still (plan to) identify the hooligans who took part in the disorders. Further arrests are planned."

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Russia fans were also responsible for the most shocking scenes seen yet at Euro 2012 when a group of them were videoed kicking and punching stewards in Wroclaw following a 4-1 win over Czech Republic on Friday.

Poznan, too, has witnessed trouble. Three fans were arrested on Sunday after Croatia fans threw bottles, chairs and flares at Polish riot police prior to their opening game against Ireland.

Lamentably, UEFA sought to ignore the trouble in Warsaw last night that left 10 people injured. The organisation made repeated attempts to prevent questions being asked about it in the post-match press conferences for the Russia and Poland managers, while president Michel Platini also remained silent when pressed on the matter.

At least we did hear from UEFA yesterday regarding alleged racist abuse of two players though. Spokesman Rob Faulkner said the body would be "conducting further investigations" into reports that Italy forward Mario Balotelli and Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie were targeted on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Balotelli is alleged to have been abused by Spain supporters in Gdansk, Gebre Selassie by Russia supporters in Wroclaw.

"At some point during the match then, about 200 supporters started monkey chants when the Italian player Mario Balotelli touched the ball,'' Spain fans' spokesman Thomas Herzog said.

"We're glad to report that the majority of the Spanish supporters reacted in a very positive way, because many of them tried to intervene very quickly and stop the fans in question from singing. We are clearly angry about this small section of Spanish supporters showing this kind of racist behaviour.''

Arguably the most high profile incident occurred in Krakow, though, where Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel said some of his team-mates had been subjected to monkey chants during an open training session.

All of these incidents occurred in Euro 2012's westerly host.

ED isn't attempting to demonise Poland in any way here — after all, in most of these cases it isn't their fans who have been involved — but there has been a clear demarcation between how the tournament has passed off in the two countries so far. That, as Rafa Benitez would say, is a fact.

Perhaps it's just a coincidence, and the situation may shift in the coming days, but in some respects this does feel like two concurrent tournaments at the moment. Perhaps that isn't a surprise when Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk is as far away from Poland's western enclave of Poznan as London is from Rome.

Ukraine has problems of its own, yet while a political boycott by the German and UK governments over the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko made big headlines at the time, it hasn't been an ongoing story. Instead Ukraine has been able to enjoy a relatively blemish-free tournament to date.

With their football team also sitting at the top of their group the contrast with Poland so far could hardly be greater. There is still a long way to go yet of course, but this is shaping up to be a tournament of two halves - unless Poland can stem the flow of violence and racism.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Myself and Steven Gerrard just have to keep going. We have to don't we? If selected I'm sure we can keep going. There's not a lot of cover in midfield but I'm sure we'll be fine." — Scott Parker gives Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones a confidence boost when saying he will play through pain for England.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I sincerely regret that my statements have sparked controversy and protest from gay rights groups. Homophobia is a sentiment that is not mine. I did not want to offend anyone and I cannot question the sexual freedom of other people. I only said that it is a problem that does not concern me and it is not for me to pass judgment on the choices of others, who are all respected." — Antonio Cassano is forced into an apology after saying in response to reports that two of Italy's squad may be gay: "I hope there are none. But if there are queers here, that's their business."

COMING UP: Arguably the highlight of the group stage as Netherlands take on bitter rivals Germany in Kharkiv. That game kicks off at 7.45pm, just after Denmark take on Portugal in Lviv.

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