Wednesday 21 February 2018

In perfect Sopot for touching balls and other touching tales

Dion Fanning

A bunch of journalists met Richard Dunne in the Grand Hotel in Sopot on Thursday. I considered mentioning to him that Hitler had stayed in the Grand Hotel in Sopot when it was called the Kasino Hotel but Robbie Keane had already got angry with me earlier in the day so it wasn't worth the risk.

This is a stretch of beautiful and tragic coast. Walking down the wooden pier in Sopot, the Gdansk shipyards reach out into the sea on the right, a counterpoint of such incongruity that they could be computer-generated. Sopot is a town where women could easily be holding parasols while Gdansk was at the centre of revolution and war.

When the Germans invaded, Hitler stayed at the Grand. If England had chosen Sopot, they would have had to steer clear of the Grand if only to avoid the 'John Terry is sleeping in Hitler's bed' headlines.

Avoiding these kind of headlines is part of what the great bureaucracy of English football does or fails to do. It is a long time since we were hearing weekly bulletins from the FA's Alex Horne about the general excellence of England's travel plans, most of which were changed, and their magnificent preparation which only needed the capstone of an actual manager to be the best preparations of any team in the tournament, maybe in any tournament.

In this time of difficulty, Horne could do well to brief the media, those guys always brief, that they had avoided staying in Hitler's hotel during their time in Poland and indeed, the hotel where Goering, Martin Bormann and, em, Demis Roussos had stayed.

So England swerved that one and they swerved Sopot. Sweden, of course, were supposed to stay here but decided to stay in Ukraine when they were drawn there which is not, the general consensus seems to be, a good enough reason for staying in Ukraine.

Ireland took Sweden's place and they are becoming comfortable.

There are two Sopots and without wishing to make some crude national stereotypes, Ireland would fit more comfortably into one and Sweden into the other.

There is a lot of public drunkenness in Sopot and there are a lot of beautiful people. The Swedes would fit effortlessly into one group. The rest doesn't need to be said.

The Germans are staying up the road and our people who visited reported back with wonder at the splendour of their base camp. They had kept the journalists onside with a raffle which didn't seem that impressive until it was revealed that the first prize was a Mercedes.

They provide free beer too, something which again highlighted the difference between us and them, no matter who they happen to be. There are good reasons for the extremely regulated conditions under which free drink is provided in Ireland. It tends to be confined to weddings and other events which operate under an unspoken law of immunity.

As a people, we would not react well if drink was free in what can loosely be described as the workplace. There would be horrendous scenes of mayhem, scenes which all reported were not present in the German media centre.

Yet we don't react bitterly to these reports. We are content that we are here, which is different to making up the numbers, even if we might arch an eyebrow when Trap says he's planning to be here for 30 days.

Yet we huddle around him too. He projects greatness and madness and the nexus of those two qualities. In the Richard Dunne interview, one journalist new to the scene asked him, "What is the funniest thing Giovanni has ever done?"

Trapattoni is hilarious but in ways we are only beginning to understand. As today's game comes closer, he has increased the frequency with which he remarks, to ward off bad luck, "be careful or I will have to touch my balls".

This is the traditional way the Italian man deals with a statement which he fears may be a jinx. The traditional Italian male is said to do it whenever he sees a nun who, to the traditional Italian male, probably represents the worst luck of all.

With his superstitions and his madness, Trap understands us and we understand him. The Poles, too, are a people we can relate to, a people who have always known that touching your balls doesn't stop somebody stomping on them.

At the end of the Sopot Pier, a man sells DVDs and postcards. There are videos that tell the story of this beautiful and tragic coastline. There is also a DVD telling the equally tragic story of Kazimierz Deyna.

Deyna was born 50km inland from Sopot, a renowned Pomeranian. He was part of the great Polish teams of the 1970s and the game took him to Manchester City in the late '70s and then to San Diego.

City signed him for £100,000 from the army club Legia Warsaw. They paid in dollars, machinery and tools, although no players were exchanged. He rarely played. After one game at Stoke, their manager Alan Durban said, "the problem is Deyna's on a different wavelength, he's tuned to Radio 4, the rest are on Radio Luxembourg."

Another friend, George Bergier, who had helped bring him to Manchester City, told inbedwithmaradona.com "he was born with two brains: one in his head and one in his feet".

The brain in his head took him in directions he shouldn't have gone. He made bad investments, played in San Diego and was arrested three times for drink-driving. On September 1, 1989, he drove his Dodge Colt into the back of a parked truck. He died instantly. He was found to have two times the legal alcohol limit in his system. He was 42.

They unveiled a statue to Deyna in Warsaw last week, but the DVDs at the end of Sopot's wooden pier were part of the plaintive presentation of the country's history. The tournament could perpetuate it for them if the racist chanting continues to overshadow everything.

On Friday night, Poland offered a different vision of their country. For a while, It was more enriching, even if, inevitably, melancholy had its say in the end.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

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