Euro 2012 Diary: Checking in with all four remaining semifinalists

Publish date:

GNIEWINO, Poland -- You pick up some good nuggets when you visit all four Euro 2012 semifinalists in four days in Poland. Take the other day in Gdansk, where the German press outfit operates out of two giant white tents that seem appropriate for a summer wedding in the Hamptons. The Germans provide anything a media type could need (and many that we assuredly don't need).

Free Frappuccinos and muffins and Bitburger beers? Check. Simultaneous headphone translation on all press conferences? Check. Free mini soccer balls and a concierge to call you a cab? Check. Sadly, we missed the day when an elite chef was brought in to give the media a taste of German cuisine -- gratis, of course. It hit me that instead of staying in our asbestos-filled, Soviet-style motel, perhaps we should have just crashed in the German wedding tents. There appeared to be a nice lay-down spot in the new Mercedes sedan parked right next to the space-age press conference podium.

In other words, the Germans are flush these days. Flush with sponsorship money, flush with success (the only team to win all four games at the Euro) and flush with confidence. Just ask midfielder Marco Reus, who told reporters straight up the other day: "We are the team to beat."

This wasn't the usual boilerplate that you get from most press events here, in which Russian coach Dick Advocaat was openly hostile to the media in refusing to say anything remotely interesting and Portuguese coach Paulo Bento won't answer more than one question about Cristiano Ronaldo (who happens to be his best player by a mile).

We are the team to beat. Reus's proclamation might strike some as arrogant, and it's true that 1) another team here, Spain, happens to be the reigning world and European champion, 2) Germany hasn't won a major title since 1996, and 3) Marco Reus may not strike you as a guy who should be talking smack, considering he has started just one game in the tournament.

But somehow Reus didn't come off as a blowhard. Part of it is that he may be correct: If we were assembling power rankings of Euro 2012, Germany would be at the top of everyone's list. And part of it was the way Reus delivered his line: With the kind of honest smile that suggests the Germans would like to be seen as friendly purveyors of sexy football and not the cold-blooded soccer machines of decades past. Here, have another Frappuccino!

Contrast the attitude of the Germans with that of Spain, the last camp at Euro 2012 where you will hear anyone say, "We are the team to beat." This might sound surprising, since Spain is aiming for an unprecedented third straight major title, but the message is clear on all the banners plastered around the team's camp: LA HISTORIA NO TE HACE CAMPEÓN. LA HUMILDAD SÍ. (History doesn't make you a champion. Humility does.)

"If we have a bit of luck, maybe we can go all the way," Xabi Alonso told me the other day. "It's going to be really difficult to repeat." Spanish confidence is a quiet confidence, but one that comes with the awareness that everyone on the planet knows these guys are the champs. Speak softly, carry a big stick, etc. The one thing that has surprised me so far is Spain's relative lack of joy in celebrating its achievements. Gigi Buffon acted like he'd won the World Cup again when Italy qualified for the knockout stage, and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany's entire team have been exultant in victory.

Spain, for its part, didn't celebrate when it reached the final eight, and Cesc Fabregas apologized to the Spanish fans here on Monday after most of the players failed to acknowledge their supporters following Saturday's 2-0 quarterfinal victory over France.

We're driving 25 hours over three days in the Fox Soccer cruiser (OK, a rented and now relatively foul-smelling Chrysler minivan) to visit all four semifinalists: Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Only Italy remains for Tuesday, but we're holding up well here. Polish superstar Krzysztof (The Wolf) Kurylowicz does all the things that fixers do, which is to say a bit of everything. Our resident Irishman, Fox Soccer's Keith Costigan, is the hardest-working man in show business and a coach who's making waves on the U.S. college scene at Cal State-Bakersfield. And Mario Arredondo is an ace cameraman with a great back-story -- his first U.S. job after emigrating from Mexico was working in a factory making plastic bags -- whose Venice Beach physique draws oohs and ahs from smitten Polish women wherever we go.

As for me, I'm trying to look like I know what I'm doing on television while still writing for SI. (You can judge for yourself on the Fox Soccer Report, nightly at 10 p.m. ET.) But I can say this: These TV guys cover a lot more ground than I ever would if I were just writing here. If I was SI-only, chances are I'd be on the third day of a five-day Euro furlough in Warsaw, where none of the teams are staying right now. Instead, because TV needs a visual, and because all four semifinalists are based in Poland (a revealing commentary on the allure of Ukraine), we're driving from Gdansk in the north (Germany) to Opalenica in the center (Portugal) to Gniewino in the north (Spain) to Krakow in the south (Italy). And let me tell you from experience: Poland is bigger than you might think.

(Let me also tell you that pronouncing "Gniewino" in my TV sign-off is no small task. These guys have been patient with me when we record a full report and I botch it at the end by pronouncing the town as something close to Gnzziewwrrpp.)

By covering so much ground, though, you also see and experience more stuff. I love catching the little details: the patriotic Polish women who paint their fingernails half-red and half-white, just like the Polish flag; the full-sized moose, a majestic creature, that we saw running next to the highway near Gdansk on Sunday; and the tiny Polish towns that have become "Little Spain" and "Little Portugal" while hosting those teams, their national flags hanging on every other house. Give some credit to Poland, too, for continuing to be excited about the tournament even after the home team was eliminated. It's fun to hear the "Polska" song get going during the elimination games.

I've learned to laugh about anything that might normally seem like a problem. Yes, I stupidly brought only one pair of jeans, forgetting to pack any others, but those jeans are still thriving on Day 16. And yes, I had another wardrobe malfunction, one of my favorite old two-tone wingtips splitting its sole when I had to run for cover from a torrential postgame rainstorm in Gdansk.

But it's no big deal, really. Even the rare occasions that could be bummers tend to turn out well in the end. When we attended the Portuguese press event on Sunday, the translation was essentially non-existent, at least compared to the fancy German simultaneous headphone translations. But eventually one of the Portuguese organizers approached us with a great translated quote sheet, and then another one came later offering a smile and (no lie) a bottle of Port.

We're not in this for freebie Frappuccinos or Port or anything else like that, but that's not the point. After three weeks here, most folks would be well within their rights to be cranky. Instead, everyone at Euro 2012 is still trying to put their best face forward, still hoping that people have a good time. Take the Fox Soccer guys that I'm in the van with right now. Three weeks ago I had never met any of them. But as I'm writing this article, with the Polish forest whizzing by and the banter flying fast and loose, I can say it's a privilege to be on their team.

Not that I'll actually say it. We're guys, after all.