It has been an absolute pleasure to be based in Warsaw for the duration of the European Championships tournament this far. I’ve been here with the charity Lionsraw and have been made to feel right at home in this great city.
Lionsraw is a movement for football fans to use the sport we all love to create chances for change. Every two years we run Legacy Tours to major tournaments, taking football fans and running coaching and building projects within the host countries. In 2010 we took a team of 150 fans to Durban in South Africa to run coaching sessions for young people and help build homes and schools.
This time we’re based in Warsaw and I have been working with a team of 25 football fans who have volunteered their time. Lionsraw seeks to harness fans’ passion for the game and the belief that it can be used to positive effect. It has enabled these guys to make sure that the excitement from the Euros is felt by as many young people as possible.
As part of a ten day trip, we have been coaching in schools and detention centres across Warsaw, teaching life skills to over 1000 kids through football. There has also been a team of amateur, (but very keen), handymen working to renovate a shower block in a young persons’ detention centre. Divided into five dedicated teams, the volunteers have been ferried out across the city each morning to a range of schools and projects. It’s been difficult to know what to expect at times and a recurring theme of the week has been the importance of adapting to different situations.
The atmosphere in the city has been brilliant so far with the Polish people delighted to be witnessing the culmination of years of preparation. Not an evening goes by when we don’t end up singing the night away with Polish fans who are always keen to ask us what we think of their city and its inhabitants. Following the Poland vs Russia match we managed to coerce an entire bar into joining us in singing “shoes off if you love Polska”, although after a day’s work of coaching, it would maybe have been a better idea to keep them on!
As the pictures you will have seen confirm, the country still has a problem with hooliganism. As I walked through the city during the Poland vs Russia game, I was both surprised and intimidated by the large groups of young guys clearly looking for trouble. But this was a minority of thugs hijacking an otherwise brilliant tournament. It is such a shame that they are grabbing the headlines.
I would rather tell you about people like the young PE teacher I met today who was so disgusted at seeing a group of Polish fans burn a Russian scarf at the Fanzone, that he left at half-time. This meant that he missed the second half of the match. But he said he was simply unable to remain where this type of thing was going on.
Or our friend Jacek who is running his own version of a UEFA Fanzone in his local community. He is using the spirit of the games to bring the estate together; hiring a bouncy castle, providing food and games, and a big screen to watch the match. These are the real heroes of the Euros and the ones who should be filling up the column inches, not the minority of troublemakers.
I believe football has the power to bring people together. It can join people behind I saw it in South Africa two years ago, and I’m seeing it here in Warsaw too. I’m hopelessly optimistic enough to believe that England can go all the way. But regardless of the result, the real champions of this tournament will be the people of Poland who have made me and the rest of the Lionsraw team feel so welcome.