On Wednesday evening a major international football event, the Europa League final, returns to Poland, nearly three years after Euro 2012 visited these shores. Much has changed in the intervening three years, especially in Poland’s neighbouring co-hosts Ukraine after the Maidan revolution and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the ongoing conflict in the East of the country. Change is also occurring in Poland, with yesterday’s election of a new president, Andrzej Duda from the Conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, perhaps ushering in a PiS controlled parliament in the autumn.
Some things have not changed though. Hosting a large international football event is still a major coup for Polish football authorities, illustrating how Poland continues to play an increasingly important role on the international stage. Although the Europa League final lacks the prestige of the Champions League, a host of fans from around the world will descend on the National Stadium for the match – fans from 91 different countries have bought tickets for the game. Of course the logistical effort to host one match pales in comparison to hosting an entire tournament, but it is an important opportunity to put on a show to the watching footballing masses.
The teams taking part in the final are definitely not massive draws for the neutral but they offer interesting side stories. One of them is FC Dnipro from South-Central Ukraine – a side that no-one expected to make the final, a side that has had to play its European home games in Kyiv due to the continuing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, a side that just barely scraped through in the group stages and a side that has dispatched more established clubs such as Ajax and Napoli in the knockout stages. With Dnipro in the final, the symbolic resonances linked to the conflicts which have erupted in post-Maidan Ukraine are obvious, especially with the game being held in the capital city of one of Ukraine’s strongest allies. A Dnipro win would say that Ukraine’s spirit cannot be broken, despite the bitter conflict in the East. Their coach Myron Markevych intimated as much when he stated after Dnipro’s semi final victory over Napoli:
“Every day our people our dying. Today all the boys fighting in the east were probably watching football, and we also played for them,” and “I am wishing for this rare moment of unity in time of war,”
Dnipro’s opponents will be last season’s Europa League champions, the Spanish club Sevilla FC, who are looking to win their fourth European trophy (fifth if you count the European Super Cup). Sevilla will go into the match as favourites but it is their Polish international midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak who will be at the centre of attention on Wednesday night. Krychowiak over the last couple of seasons has become a core member of a Polish international team which has recently achieved great results, most importantly in their 2-0 home win over World Champions Germany in October. He has also become an important player to Sevilla this season, after his €4.5 move last summer from French side Reims. Krychowiak seems to be relishing the match in Warsaw – recently calling on Polish fans to cheer on Sevilla in the final:
“Playing the final in Warsaw, in my own country is a massive deal for me, something really exceptional. I’m proud that I can represent Poland there. I hope Polish fans will support Sevilla and that it will be an amazing evening.”
These caveats should make the game interesting for the outside observer. Whoever wins, and it looks likely to be Sevilla, the neutral Polish fan will surely enjoy the opportunity to see a really high level of club football at the national stadium for the first time. I for one will be looking forward to it.