Euro U21 2017: An away supporter in a neutral stadium
Singing with Swedish supporters in Kielce square, having a morning shot with some travelling Slovakians and mastering how to say 'thank you' in Polish (it’s dziękuję) – much to the delight of the shopkeeper down the road. As an English supporter at the Under 21 Euros, it's been brilliant getting to know people of different cultures and mixing with opposition fans. It became very quickly clear, however, that I was a bit of a novelty – there weren’t too many of my fellow Englishmen in attendance. This was great away from the stadium, but once we got into The Kolporter Arena – home of Korona Kielce – it became a bit of a problem...
Every football fan wants to have a positive impact on his or her team, and help to create an uplifting atmosphere. However, this is near-impossible when – due to an unsegregated stadium policy – you're placed smack in the middle of the opposition fans. There were sections of English fans in the Kolporter Arena, but in a stadium with macthday attendances of 11,000+, around 10,000 were wearing the opposition's shirts. The sheer numbers of rival fans – and an understandable reluctance to move too far away from my designated seat – led to a surreal fan experience of England's Euro U21 campaign.
The first of England’s games was a 0-0 draw against reigning World Champions Sweden. In terms of on-pitch action, there really wasn’t much to write home about. Linus Wahlqvist’s poor attempt at a Panenka penalty – saved by £30 million goalkeeper Jordan Pickford – became the major talking point. In the stands it was a different story, where Sweden’s supporters turned Kielce yellow. Seas of Swedish saffron filled the town square pre-match, with cries of “Sverige!” and other Swedish chants echoing through the city streets. The party atmosphere was in full flow as we made our way to the stadium, with the Swedes in great voice – switching their repertoire to 'Forever Blowing Bubbles' and other Premier League favourites whenever they came across an Englishman.
There was no chance of that party atmosphere stopping once we got into the ground. With The Kolporter Arena draped in Swedish flags and filled with yellow shirts, everywhere you looked there was a group of singing Swedes. Not to be deterred by the poor showing on the pitch, the travelling fans sang their hearts out for the full 90 minutes. Before the game, I asked an English teacher from Stockholm which players to look out for. “There isn’t anyone really," he said. "In Sweden it isn’t about the individuals, but the team. We have a really good team spirit which is our main strength.” This was evident both on the pitch and in the stands.
England's second group stage game was a must-win tie with Slovakia, and the opposition fans were feeling positive. On the morning of the game I asked a Slovakian in my hotel how confident he was about his team's chances. “Very confident" he replied. "We have very good players. We have a 19 year old star called László Bénes who plays for Borussia Monchengladbach. You may not know him now, but you will soon.”
Bénes came on in the 66th minute against England – five minutes after Nathan Redmond had added to Alfie Mawson’s earlier strike to cancel out Martin Chrien’s first-half goal and put England 2-1 up. This was around the time when the Slovakians – who like the Swedes massively outnumbered England’s support – began to make their presence felt. They'd taken a clear disliking to striker Tammy Abraham, and every time he touched the ball whistles echoed from all corners of the arena – making for a truly intimidating atmosphere. Then there were the drummers, who beat the skins relentlessly in an attempt to drive their side forwards. I found myself at the centre of a pocket of intense noise from the already-agitated Slovakian fans. As there weren’t any other English supporters in the immediate vicinity, and as the Slovakians were so vocal, it was near-impossible to make my voice heard.
England eventually emerged victorious, and set up a crunch tie with the host nation: Poland. How the Slovakians responded was a credit to their nation. When the 90 minutes were up, the players did a lap of the pitch to applaud their fans, while those in the stands continued to cheer and chant. It was a real spectacle, and one you rarely see from a losing side. It was a poignant, heartening end to the day’s proceedings.
In each of these group stage games, it was surprising to see by how much the opposition support outnumbered the English fans. But in the deciding fixture against the hosts, it was to be expected. The Polish had been very welcoming and hospitable throughout the tournament, but this was to change on the final matchday – every England shirt was met with a hostile stare, and the occasional chant of "Polska!".
In the stadium, it was clear from the beginning that the Polish were going to make themselves heard on their own patch – there was near-constant singing from the moment they entered the ground. Their national anthem was the signal for a tide of flags and scarves to be held aloft in every corner of the ground, and for patriotic voices to be raised in unison. Upon the starting whistle, a Polish supporter took centre stage at the front of the top tier, megaphone in hand, leading the chants throughout the game. He clearly did a brilliant job, as the only time the singing really stopped was when each of England’s goals went in.
This match felt different for me. Because I wasn’t in a main stand, I had a chance to look at the opposition support as an outsider, rather than being there in the thick of it. Distance didn't dim the magnificence of the Polish support, however, nor diminish that special moment whenever the Polska flags and scarves were held aloft in a sea of red, white and noise.
The supporters of each of England's opponents did their nations proud, and the fact that they outnumbered the traveling English only lends more credit to our players out on the pitch. If I felt outnumbered and outgunned as a supporter, imagine how they must have felt with all that ire pouring down on them from the stands – and yet they still topped the group. The 2017 Euro U21s was the first international tournament I've attended, and the experience of being a traveling fan in foreign cities and stadiums was like nothing I've seen from the English game. The Kolporter Arena in Kielce, where England played all three group matches, will live long in the memory – as will images of the Swedish, Slovakian and Polish supporters I had the pleasure to meet. Better still, England played some fantastic football – and got the results to match. Despite their semi-final penalties defeat to a talented German side, Aidy Boothroyd's Young Lions can leave Poland with their heads held high.
- Danny Lewis
Danny Lewis is a freelance football journalist who writes for Outside of the Boot and These Football Times. See more of Danny's work on Twitter at @DannyLewis_95