A blog about football, football business, travel and war. Setting the scene for Poland v Wales, June 2022.

The pandemic is petering out and the world is starting to return to normal. Gigs have been back on the agenda for almost a year now, but this will be the first opportunity to watch Wales away since the great plague of 2020. Well – almost.

Our gang had tickets lined up for Euro 2020, and a proper headfuck full of flights and hotels including flying to Baku via Amsterdam and Kiev, then Baku to Rome, via Istanbul. Then Rome to Bristol via Brussels. The organising of the tournament, with games being played all over Europe, was supposed to be a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the tournament. It was a great idea for everyone. Except the fans and players.

Hotels in Baku were four or five times the cost they were when we played there in the qualifying rounds and our convoluted flight plans were down to airlines cashing in. A lot of people were going to make a lot of money. But if you were a fan, the logistics of getting to games was a nightmare, not to mention expensive, particularly if your nation was not one of those chosen to host games.

All of this obviously went apex over base when the world went into lockdown.

The tournament was rescheduled for 2021, but for the Wales fans the only way to get to games involved A) ignoring foreign office advice on travel and B) sneaking across borders like a ninja. Unlike England who had the luxury of playing all their games in Wembley (although I think they wish they hadn’t)

Next up, the Nations League, a made-up tournament to give a bit of meaning to friendlies, and with a convoluted formula that can mean qualification for the Euros through the back door. There are two types of people in the world. People who don’t understand the formula but claim they do and people who just admit they don’t understand it.

We are drawn to play Poland, Belgium, and Netherlands in the competition. It is an expensive, not to mention time consuming hobby, watching Wales away. I don’t have enough annual leave to go to every game, so I have to prioritise. I have always preferred the trips to lesser visited countries, like Bosnia, Croatia and China. Poland is not the mysterious eastern-bloc country it once was, but it was certainly the most interesting of the three and top of my list. Trip was duly booked.

For a few years now, our little gang has booked our own trips, rather than go with anyone else. On this occasion though, with the uncertainty of covid still looming, it felt right to go with the official travel company, Wonky Sheep. That way, if anything changed, it would be down to them to change flights and hotels, not us.

Just to ensure things don’t get boring, we still have a world cup qualifying play off final thing to play. It should have been sorted months ago, but then those pesky Russians invaded Ukraine and the semi-final between Scotland and Ukraine was delayed.

I get that football takes a back seat when a country is at war, I really do. I get that it was appropriate to delay the game. But what I don’t get is why, with a whole calendar to play with, it was necessary to replay the game on a date that would mean moving the date of the Poland game. And I really don’t get why they then decided to move all the other games Wales have scheduled for June, causing massive inconvenience to thousands of Wales fans who had already booked flights and accommodation. Not one second of consideration was given to the fans who, after all, are the reason for playing the game.

UEFA and FIFA proving that they are completely out of touch with fans. Again.

This should come as no surprise though, because if Wales win the play off, they will be heading to Qatar for the World Cup finals. A country with no real history of football, a country that is highly unlikely to benefit from the ‘legacy’ of holding a world cup, a county that is so hot the summer tournament has to be moved to December to make it cool enough for the players to run around without collapsing. A country where beer is £15 a pint – if you can find it. Add to this the appalling working conditions and deaths of workers building the new stadiums and you have a tournament I have no intention of attending.

And yet, here we are, gluttons for punishment and packing for Poland. The Wonky Sheep booking paid off, they rearranged everything. We even have a charter flight to and from Cardiff.

This will be my second trip to Poland to watch Wales play, having stayed in Krakow in 2005. “But they didn’t play in Krakow!” I hear you cry. Correct. We had booked accommodation there because that was where all the vibes were indicating the game would be, but at the last minute it was swapped to Warsaw. We had a big meeting and decided to stick with the original plans. Out of the fifty-odd of us on the trip with the Valley RAMs, only a handful bothered to make the eight hour round trip to the game. Most of us just watched it in a local pub. Although we lost one nil, we still celebrated because Poland winning meant England did not qualify. This was back in the days before Wales fans had no expectation they would ever reach a major tournament. We hadn’t since 1958, after all.

Watching a game being played in Warsaw, in a pub in Krakow

Things have changed. Since we qualified for Euro 2016, expectation levels have raised considerably. A lot is being pinned on this play off final. It is likely to be the last chance Gareth Bale and possibly Aaron Ramsey will have of going to a World Cup. They will be too ‘old’ by 2026. There are some good players from the next generation coming through, but no one of the same calibre. Which makes this play off final the best chance they will ever have of getting to a World Cup. Which makes it all the more annoying that it is being played in a country I refuse to visit.

I believe the reason Wales have done so well in recent years has been down to the squad though, not individuals. So I am taking an optimistic view of qualification for future tournaments.

This game is not being played in Krakow or Warsaw. It is being played in the Tarczynski Arena, Wroclaw.

Wrocław is a city in southwestern Poland and the largest city in the historical region of Silesia. It lies on the banks of the River Oder in the Silesian Lowlands of Central Europe, roughly 350 kilometres (220 mi) from the Baltic Sea to the north and 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the Sudeten Mountains to the south. The official population of Wrocław in 2020 was 641,928, with a further 1.25 million residing in the metropolitan area, making it the fourth largest city in Poland.

Poland has come a long way since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has become a modern European country, for better or worse. Even back in 2005 it was considered to be an unusual destination for a holiday. Today, it is a common destination for city breaks, stag parties and dwarf hunting tours. Salt mines and former Nazi concentration camps have become major tourist attractions.

The days of mass migration from Poland to the UK are gone. More people migrate the other way these days.

The transition from Soviet Union to European Union has been a slow but steady journey. There has been a bump in the road this year though, with Poland’s neighbour feeling the wrath of Putin for daring to look westwards. The border area has been the scene of mass migration of women and children fleeing the war. It puts things into perspective; we are going to Poland to watch twenty-two over paid men kick around a ball, drink beer and hunt dwarves. Hundreds of thousands of others are heading there to stay alive.

Strange days indeed