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Eastern Europe Hasn't Died Yet, but It Could at Any Moment

Compare the high drama of the Poland-Russia game with the organized tedium of the meeting between France and England. (Never mind the army of Russian nationalists marauding in the streets of Warsaw or the local patriots standing in their way, the police keeping the two groups of drunken patriots apart. That's been done: English fans have patriotically tottered down the streets of the world and clashed with local population and police.) I'm talking about the game in which teams seem to abandon all tactical consideration and attack, as was the case today with the Poles, thereby risking defeat. The Poles just went forward, in a heroic charge. Didn't work, but that's beside the point. The game between Ukraine and Sweden seemed to have the same spirit, except the Ukrainians were fighting for dear life toward the end.

My daughter's swimming coach, who is Polish, came to her lesson today claiming he was on the verge of a heart attack because of the game. He is flying from Chicago back home to see the game between Poland and the Czech Republic, which the Poles must win. He paid a lot of money for a ticket for that game. Somehow, everything depends on its outcome.

The games of Eastern European teams always have a dimension of fighting for survival—especially Russia, with its Putin-esque imperial arrogance notwithstanding. Before the Ukraine-Sweden game the entire stadium in Kiev sang the Ukrainian anthem, the first verse of which is: "Ukraine hasn't died yet." The Polish anthem has exactly the same first verse: "Poland hasn't perished yet." Mere survival is the source of national pride. (The Czech anthem begins with: "Where is my home? Where is my home?") What is survived is some sort of continuously present catastrophe.

It is therefore entirely serendipitous that Greece is in Group A—the group of doom—as the entire nation is presently busy with daily survival. Each Group A game is a matter of staying alive. It is unlikely, but I shudder to think about the possibility of the Greeks beating the Russians in the last round, which could eliminate the sons of "the holy realm" of Russia (from in the first verse of the Russian anthem). And the game between Poland and the Czech Republic ought to be one for the ages, because one of the teams will survive (again) and the other one will be back to deal with the continuous catastrophe.