How to be a soccer fan in the age of austerity
GDANSK - Couch-surfing, a junk-food diet, bootleg kits, budget flights at punishing hours, and above all enough passion for the beautiful game to remind yourself why you endure this.
Welcome to the life of a football fan in the age of austerity.
Tens of thousands of fans from crisis-hit Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal have travelled across Europe to follow their teams in the European Championship, leaving the chronic unemployment, massive spending cuts, and widespread disenchantment of their homeland behind for a few weeks.
“We can’t trust our politicians, we can’t trust our banks, but we can trust our team,” said 35-year-old Spanish fan Julio from Caceres, speaking outside a campsite in the northern Polish city of Gdansk.
“It is very cheap here in Poland, that helps. I travelled here because I love my country. Spain are World Cup winners and the reigning European champions. I simply had to come,” said the local government worker.
Spain are highly fancied to retain their European title.
It is Julio’s first tournament and he is staying for five days, having flown with a budget airline. Like most fans he is thankful things in Poland and Ukraine are cheaper than at home.
UEFA voted in 2007 for the Eastern European neighbours to host the four-yearly tournament in a move which has turned out to be opportune. In 2008 the finals were held in pricey Switzerland and Austria, while the 2010 World Cup took place in prohibitively distant South Africa.
A beer in one of the Polish fan zones - official areas set up with giant screens so supporters can follow the games - is about half what it cost at the 2008 tournament in the Austrian fan zones.
“The economic situation in Spain is dire... Ordinary Spaniards are seeing their resources dwindling all the time even if they actually have a job, while the cost of living is still very high,” said Enrique Aguayo, 40, an administrator at a private company in Cordoba, southern Spain.
“It has been a sacrifice for everyone to come here for the games. I had to save up to be able to make it but it’s important for me to support the national team.”
Love of their team, the tournament atmosphere and the drama on the pitch has seen fans putting in months of preparation to work out how to get around on a shoestring.
“It has been a lot of work, but we planned this for months, finding the cheapest rooms through lots of research on the Internet, and flying from Dublin to England, and then England to Poland to save money,” said John Donnelly, a 38-year-old car technician from Kilkenny.
Travelling in a group of four has saved money, and he and his friends have avoided spending much more than 30 euros ($38.11) a night for accommodation. Like many Irish fans, they chose to stay in cities between Poznan and Gdansk, the venues where Ireland was playing, to spend less.
As expected, many hotels in host cities raised their prices, so fans have looked elsewhere. Poland’s PAP news agency reported that price hikes of up to 84 percent in Poznan and Wroclaw, 74 percent in Gdansk and 69 percent in Warsaw, had left many hotels with spare rooms.
The chief executive of the HRS Polska hotel chain Lukasz Dabrowski told PAP: “Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland showed that hotels that are located 20-30 kilometres from the host cities and charge reasonable prices fare the best.”
Many Poles are advertising cheap guest rooms in their flats through social media, and younger fans in particular are trying to arrange beds through couch-surfing — a network where people offer a place in their homes for free, simply for the fun of meeting people from different countries.
The chance to couch-surf was enough to persuade 24-year-old Joao from Lisbon to grab a budget flight to Rzeszow, an airport in south-east Poland, via Barcelona.
“It was a totally spontaneous trip. We came for the game, but we have no tickets and no accommodation. Right now we’re looking for couch-surfing and were waiting for the guy who said he will put us up.”
His friend Pedro also travelled by train through Ukraine and couch-surfed. “Our hosts were so friendly and showed us the city... We came not only for the games, but also to do some sightseeing.”
Restaurant and bar owners in Gdansk have been glad of the extra income and have done a roaring trade in beer, Polish vodka and cheap meals like pizza.
Warsaw, meanwhile, enjoyed the presence of thousands of big-spending Russians for two group matches, who ordered “without even checking the prices” according to surprised Polish waitresses.
“I remember the Russian fans from the 1988 Euro championship in Germany,” said 49-year-old Irishman Patrick Kealy from Dublin.
“There were hardly any of them and they looked very poor. Now look. That is how the world changes.”