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Euro 2012 blog: Krakow takes on the tournament with a patriotic elephant

PR dla Zagranicy
Nick Hodge 13.06.2012 17:53
Krakow's time-honoured mascot, the Wawel Dragon, is in danger of being usurped by an ineffectual oracle named Citta, a 33-year-old resident of the city's zoo

photo - PAP/Stanisław Rozpędzik

By Nick Hodge

Melon, melon, on the wall, which is the finest football team of them all...?

According to Krakow's official oracle for Euro 2012 - a melon-munching elephant named Citta - there's not a scintilla of doubt over the above question.

The patriotic resident of Krakow Zoo has stubbornly refused to back any other side but Poland in her predictions for the tournament thus far.

Over in Kiev, Funtik the psychic pig notched up a 66 percent success rate in his tips for the tournament by 11 June, while Citta has yet to forecast a correct result.

Will the proud elephant lose her nerve on Friday and pick a draw, or, God forbid, a Czech victory over Poland?

All will soon be revealed.

Either way, in spite of her sudden loss of clairvoyant powers (last month she correctly chose the winner of the European Champions League) Citta has proved one of the most popular characters in Krakow's Euro 2012 carnival thus far, drawing TV crews from as far afield as Japan.

The old royal capital had hoped to be a full-blown host for this year's tournament, yet after the initial let-down of losing out to Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan and Wroclaw, there was consolation over at the town hall when two top teams decided to make their base camp in the city.

Italy and Holland were swiftly followed by England, meaning that Krakow could lap up some of the razzle-dazzle of the tournament at first hand.

Krakow's Lviv Handmade Chocolate shop: photo Jamie Fyson Howard

Roy Hodgson's boys have been the most visible squad in town thus far, not shying away from opportunities to sign autographs, a factor that's got down well with the locals.

“We've had a most fantastic reception from the people of Krakow,” Adrian Bevington from the English FA told me on Saturday.

“The players themselves seem very comfortable, happy and relaxed,” he enthused, adding that the snazzy Hotel Stary on the Market Square “has gone down very well with the whole group.”

The James Bond style swimming pool in the medieval cellars of the mansion has proved a runaway hit with the players, with goalie Joe Hart enjoying some volleyball antics with his team-mates between games.

Meanwhile, families and football fans alike were able to watch England up close during a jolly training session at the stadium of 4th division side Hutnik Krakow on Friday.

England had been pipped to the post by Italy and Holland when it came to reserving the biggest stadiums in town, but the situation has proved a blessing for the embattled Hutnik side.

Last year, scantily clad female Hutnik fans braved the elements by starring in a fund-raising calendar for the fourth division side when the club's finances fell into dire straits.

Then England appeared, and now Hutnik can go to the ball.

At the Krakow fan-zone: photo - Jamie Fyson Howard

Last December, even though England had already pledged to revamp the stadium, UK tabloid The Sun felt obliged to splash out a scare story saying the venue was a “dump.”

But in the end, the arrangement has proved a success for all parties.

“The training ground that we have at Hutnik is exactly what we were looking for,” Bevington said on Saturday.

“It has lots of space – the condition of the pitch is first class,” he added.

“We're very, very happy with everything we've encountered so far.”

Hooligans at the Holland training session

Turning to more sensitive matters, allegations of racist chanting at one event threatened to overshadow the largely positive atmosphere in the city last week.

On Wednesday 6 June, some 25,000 people turned out for a Dutch training session at the stadium of first division side Wisla Krakow.

It was one of the sunniest afternoons of the month thus far, and in a welcoming spirit, thousands of city residents, including scores of young families, donned Holland's traditional orange colours for the event.

Yet not long after the Dutch players entered the stadium, the celebratory, picnic-style atmosphere was broken by a small but hard core of Wisla fans – mostly wearing black - bunched together behind the northern goal posts.

For about 15 minutes there was a barrage of aggressive chanting from about two hundred or so fans. It all seemed bizarrely out of key with the tone of the event, leaving the rest of the stadium bewildered.

The chants included the usual foul-mouthed attacks against rival city side Cracovia, as well as “Ole, Ole, Ole, Screw the Euro” and a less controversial choice - a rough rendition of the Polish national anthem.

Dutch players warming up: photo - EPA/ Jerry Lampen

The next day, Dutch team members said that they had heard monkey noises - apparently directed at black members of their side - while jogging by the northern section of the stadium.

UEFA initially downplayed the scenario, and what exactly happened remains unclear.

I was in an enclosure at the other of the stadium, and did not hear any monkey noises. City authorities and the police have checked footage and believe that were no racist taunts.

But coming so soon after the controversial BBC documentary Stadiums of Hate, the claims were bound to kick up a fuss in the international media.

On the one hand, it seemed a tremendous shame that the city was being compromised by a small minority of hooligans.

On the other, regardless of whether there was any racist chanting on Wednesday or not, a cursory glance at the East Europe Monitoring Centre's book Monitoring Racism, Discrimination and Hate Crime in Polish and Ukrainian Football 2009-2011, edited by Polish and Ukrainian experts, reveals incontestable claims concerning past incidents, and suggests that more are highly liable to emerge in the future.

Krakow town hall has been cooperating with local multicultural foundations such as Interkulturalni.pl on programmes on how to counter the spectre of racism.

Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow's Jewish Community Centre, echoed the sentiments of many observers in a statement last week, when he reflected that Poland had made “great strides” in dealing with problems of tolerance since the collapse of communism.

All things considered, it was not so long ago that monkey chants echoed down from the terraces of English and other European stadiums.

For the time being, fingers are being kept crossed that the behaviour of a minority of hooligans will not spoil what's been an exciting tournament thus far.

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