There are many great things about working at football tournaments, not least that it is “work” only in the very loosest sense of the word. It is a joy from beginning to end.
They also take us places where we breathe air heavy with the weight of history. The 2006 World Cup took us to Germany, in my case Berlin. Four years later we were in South Africa and now we’re in Poland. In all three cases the history of the setting has imbued the event with a meaning greater than the sum of its football parts.
From our studio in Warsaw’s old town we look over Castle Square and across the Vistula at the National Stadium. One evening I got talking to Hubert, a Polish producer working for us on ITV. I asked him what the scene I was now surveying looked like in 1944.
“There would have been absolutely nothing there. The Germans destroyed everything. It was flat.” And then he nodded over in the direction of the stadium, a couple of miles away across the river. “The Russians waited there and let them do it. About 150,000 people were killed in three weeks.” Stunned into silence, it all went quiet save for the buskers in the square below.
From that moment, wherever I’ve walked I’ve kept in my mind what the place looked like back then. Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Gareth Southgate and I went for lunch one day in the Old Square. I came across a picture of what it looked like from that spot at the end of the war. Again, we fell silent.
Given this backdrop it feels as if the tournament is part of a long healing process. “You must remember that for this country this is the first time ever we’re at the centre of the world’s attention, and it’s nothing to with the military or with politics,” another local explained to me.
A few days later, when Poland played Russia, I reflected on what he’d said. Riot police were gathered in the square beneath our studio – hundreds were arrested; dozens hospitalised. But let’s look at it through the other end of the telescope. Until relatively recently Russians were the hated occupying force: 300,000 of their troops were stationed on Polish soil. Yet thousands of Poles and Russians, the vast majority of them smiling, now came together here in Warsaw. Only football could make this happen.
I felt something similar at Auschwitz. Bear with me: I’ll explain. Football was a long way from my mind as we made our way around the place with our guide, a slight, serious woman in her 20s. It was all almost too much to take in. One pair of shoes belonging to an Auschwitz victim would move you, 40,000 of them in a pile is a different thing altogether. And nothing can prepare you for the sight of seven tonnes of human hair heaped up before you.
At the end of the tour we thanked her. She said she hoped England would go on and win the tournament. So there we were at the gates of Auschwitz talking about football. And it didn’t feel the least bit inappropriate because it was all about a nation’s grim history, its survival, and the slow fading of terrible memories.