Let's try to get back on track here, Jan: remember Poland?
I was staying with someone who didn't know a soccer ball from a frisbee, and whose radio was so permanently set to BBC and a Polish news station that it was impossible to get the dial to budge.
But not to worry. I heard the play by play from every game Poland played anyway. Through the open windows. And in case I missed something, the communal cheers or groans coming from every building in the neighborhood told me what I needed to know.
It was my first World Cup. 1982. Warsaw. I remember it like it was an hour ago. In fact, as I sit watching this World Cup match between the US and England, and saw the match yesterday between South Africa and Mexico, I am reliving the highs of those weeks in June, 1982.
Out of the television now I hear the familiar buzz of the noise-makers (what DO you call them?) and I'm back again in Warsaw, alone in the afternoon in the apartment on Czestochowska street, sitting at a table with a brown checked table cloth, silent radio sitting against the wall, an old-fashioned brown Polish pottery (empty) sugar bowl and a glass of tea in an elegant metal holder, in the old Russian fashion, set before me. The kitchen windows are wide open on this warm sunny afternoon, matching checked curtains blowing in the breeze. I've opened the windows in the other two rooms for stereo advantage. I sit on the opposite side of my usual spot, closer to the outside, my listening post two precious feet closer to the neighbors' radios.
We didn't have a TV. Nobody had a TV. Well, almost nobody, and those who did had special privilege. The soccer, or really, I should be calling it football pitch was all in our minds, the faces of the players imagined, the open field, the quick footwork, the long passes, the clever manuevering. The afternoon passed in a noisy succession of cheers, sighs, groans and palpable silences.
This was THE game. Poland had won their first match, 3-0, against Belgium. I'd heard that game while out and about, every window in Warsaw open, every block with its own chorus of cheers (there was a lot of cheering that day) and excitement. Afterward, horns had blown and honked and the beaten down, weary, hungry Polish people felt their spirits lifted, after a long, tense winter and spring of martial law.
The militia still patrolled the streets in three's (one to report on the other two, went a joke) with rifles carried stiffly upright in their hands, at their sides. We crossed the street to avoid them, not out of fear but for disgust. It was humiliating, demoralizing to feel like an occupied country, especially when the occupation army was your own.
The stores were empty. We queued for bread. Butter was rationed. The best meals were made of fresh produce, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, sold at the farmers' markets. Did I see a piece of meet?
As a foreigner, I was entitled to shop in the Pewex stores, "dollar stores," where I could use hard currency, western currency, which was the only money with any value in all of Eastern Europe. I traded it, my hundred dollars, on the black market, with various friends (never my host) for a small fortune in zlotys that enabled me to buy whatever I wanted.
What I really wanted was food. But there wasn't any, not in the Polish shops. So I used my valued dollars at the Pewex store in the Victoria Hotel. So we had a few sources of protein, sardines, for God's sake, and my favored Coca Cola, cashews, crackers. Chocolate.
The zlotys I used to buy leather bags, briefcases, purses, jewelry, exquisite carved boxes, a bit of fragile pottery. And magazines for my friend who was rightly proud and agonized at being a recipient of charity. I had to be extra clever and careful to not make it seem that way.
Anyway, the World Cup. Next game up: the Soviet Union. Maybe the Poles and the Soviets fought on the football pitch so they didn't end up on the real battlefields. No, probably not, that's a bit histronic. But it was a highly charged, emotional, high stakes, all out engagement. Especially from the Poles' side. I almost got my sports' agnostic host interested.
So it went, the afternoon, the long afternoon. Ninety minutes of back and forth. I could only imagine all that went on in that stadium. The tension in our neighborhood was almost unbearable. I'd might as well have been in a stadium, for all the noise that poured out of windows above and below and across from my kitchen chair. During half-time I recorded some of these impressions and then settled in for more.
More local commentary, colorful and otherwise. Even the breeze stopped blowing,the day itself held its breath. And then, a final whistle. Game over.
Poland 0. Soviet Union 0.
Holding the Soviet athletic machine scoreless was a moral victory. Stopping the Soviets was an emotional victory. And by virtue of total tournament points scored, Poland won. Poland won the right to advance to the next round.
The Soviets went home.
It was a good night in Warsaw.
And even at home. I opened a bottle of Pewex-purchase Hungarian wine. My host-friend, always more tightly wound than a battery spring, indifferent to the sport, nonetheless, let himself unwind just a little bit.