A hitherto undisclosed fact about Euro 2012:
According to the World Health Organization, 11 of the 16 nations involved in the tournament are in the top 25 alcohol per capita consuming countries in the world. The top ten includes the Czech Republic (2), Russia (4), and Ukraine (5). Croatia is 11th, Portugal 12th, followed by Ireland, France, the United Kingdom and Denmark. By comparison, Canada is 48th and the United States 57th, don't you know -- just in case you want to use it for trivia games in (where else?) a bar or pub.
Drinking is an integral part of the culture in so many countries. Beer is considered liquid bread, and you can have it for breakfast in many Eastern European countries. The old tradition in Russia is that when you unscrew a top off a vodka bottle, the top is thrown away because if its worth opening, its worth finishing.
Being at a tournament like Euro 2012 is all about the party. The games themselves are sometimes a secondary consideration. And we all have a pretty good idea of what happens when tens of thousands of liquored-up young males get together.
Vancouver following last year's Stanley Cup Game 7 is an example of what happens when things go bad. But in all the tournaments I've been to, the Irish are an example of good-natured inebriation. Even when their team loses, there are smiles and songs.
All the violence was fueled by alcohol. And racist chants? Well, there's no accounting for ignorance.
For journalists and television people, there are constant adventures in getting around, getting access and staying fresh during weeks of sleep-deprived labor and excess. They see these thing happen and its their job to report it. I hate to break it to you but rowdy fans aren't the only ones getting liquored up. Working 40 straight 16-hour days and staying sober aren't always compatible.
Much is made of the passion exhibited by Canadian soccer fans watching the Euro 2012 tournament on television. The nightly local newscasts will inevitably present the same formula of a reporter standing in front of an ethnic restaurant or cafe with fans dressed in their favorite nation's colors, and screaming "we're number one" with the chorus of woo woo girls in the background.
The fact that many of these same people don't know if the ball is round or square is irrelevant. Euro 2012 is an event, a spectacle, creating a herd mentality.
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says the title refers to "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." The book seeks to explain and describe the "mysterious" sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do."
He was referring to consumer behavior, but after all, isn't watching a major sporting event part of consumer behavior as well? Certainly the corporations spending millions on sponsorship hope so. It's no accident that a beer company is the single largest sponsor of Euro 2012.
But football, soccer, is and always will be political. My own "Road to Damascus" moment came back in the '80s when I was playing for the Serbian White Eagles. I was taught about the Delije (the Strong Ones), who were the hardcore fans of Red Star Belgrade.
They had been an anarchic hooligan force in the '80s, regularly causing havoc at away games. Slobodan Milošević had sought to harness their power by appointing Arkan, later a notorious warlord, to control them.
Many of them formed their own paramilitary units that fought in the war.
In the eyes of the Delije, it was they who enacted the first battle of the war in the former Yugoslavia as they rioted in Zagreb in 1990 at a league game against Dinamo, whose Bad Blue Boys were ultras (hooligans) with a clear Croatian nationalist ideology. Behind the main stand at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb stands a memorial to the Bad Blue Boys who died at the front.
I had no idea.
Going to matches in England in the '70s was also a real trip. One Glasgow Rangers player recalled hearing a whistling noise past his ear when he was going to take a throw in. Turns out it was a golf ball with nails driven through it. There was a guy in the terraces at a Rangers vs. Celtic match who had a dart pierce his skull. And I personally saw a maniac bring in a hammer and throw it into the opponents' end.
Far cry from sitting in the stands at the Air Canada center.
On the opposite end of the scale, this year's Euros saw the banning of that cranium-splitting band that follows England to all the big tournaments for the last 16 years. If you've watched any England matches you've heard that rendition of "The Great Escape" followed by chants of "ENGLAND!"
They were banned because they received sponsorship from a meat pie company and called themselves "The Pukka Pies England Band." Big problem. Couldn't get into the first England game. If you're not part of the official sponsors, you can't do guerrilla advertising campaigns.
Nicklas Bendtner of Denmark was told to change underwear for the upcoming Germany game.
Seems that the corporate masters of the tournament were not amused by the fact that he took off his shirt after scoring against Portugal only to reveal the name of a betting firm on the band of his gotchies. The name of the betting firm? Paddy Power. They tweeted a picture of him just minutes after the goal. The power of social media!
But in the final analysis, soccer, more than any other sport, is like an ancient Greek play. The fans are the chorus, and the actors are the players. The two entities working symmetrically and the result is the playing out of life's basic forms, good, bad or indifferent.
And every tournament has its unique talking points -- on and off the pitch.