Half-naked female protesters and hordes of colorful fans descended on rain-soaked Warsaw on Friday as Poland kicked off the historic Euro 2012 soccer championships with joy, a draw and controversy.
For the first time, Europe’s top soccer showcase, co-hosted with Ukraine, is being held in countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain just two decades ago.
Ecstatic supporters, most in Poland’s red-and-white, crammed into Europe’s largest fanzone in the shadow of the Polish capital’s Stalinist-era Palace of Culture, draped in a cheerfully folk-themed “Warsaw welcomes you” sign.
As police helicopters circled and the first vuvuzelas of the 16-nation championships blared, fans both young and old beat drums, sang and cheered at the top of their lungs as they watch Poland tie 1-1 with Greece in the opening game.
“Poles, it’s OK!” some chanted after the final whistle blew, but others could not contain their woe.
“It was a catastrophe,” Stanislaw Zajkowski, 40, said as he left the game venue — Warsaw’s shining new national stadium — with his seven-year-old son, Stanislaw. “I’m afraid what will happen on Tuesday against Russia.”
“We absolutely have to, got to beat Russia, there’s no question,” said red-and-white-clad Poland fan Tomasz Kowalik, 30.
“We were just being good host, to make them feel welcome,” said Miroslaw Kowlowski, 45.
Greece fans were far more optimistic.
“It’s a good omen that we may advance. We’ll win against the Czechs and tie with Russia,” said Dinos Sarimvais, a 30-year-old Athenian.
Earlier, even a torrential rain storm failed to dampen Poland’s spirits.
Some were clad in yeti, octopus, clown or Greek gladiator costumes, but most sported Poland’s red-and-white shirts and scarves.
A candy-cane-colored sea of Polish fans poured into the stadium to witness the historic kick-off, with Greeks decked out in their national blue-and-white.
Femen, Ukraine’s media-savvy topless feminists, added to the soccer fever, baring their breasts and screaming expletives to denounce the games they claim would lead to a spike in prostitution and sex trafficking in both host countries.
Poland is expecting up to 1 million fans before the championships wind up in the July 1 final in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.
“This may be the only event on this scale here in our lifetime, it can’t be missed,” Tomasz Woldan, a 33-year-old IT specialist, said in the huge square set aside for fans with stands and giant TV screens.
Concerns over racism and fan safety, however, have cast a shadow, with Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel slamming racist “monkey chants” heard during a public training session in the southern Polish city of Krakow.
However, Mohamed Shokry, a 25-year-old Egyptian living in Poland, said he felt completely safe and could not believe his eyes after the match.
“Polish people were hugging Greeks, I never saw this before in my life,” he said.
Ugandan-born fan Rajest Kumar, 52, said he was having fun and also felt safe as he soaked up the atmosphere near the Warsaw fanzone, the scene of Communist Party rallies in the old days.
“It’s a good thing for the country. People should know about Poland: The hospitality is great. It’s safe — a friendly nation,” said Kumar, a social worker who lives in Poland.
However, even Poland’s secret weapon, in the form of a troupe of merry grannies belting out the cheery, if kitschy, Poland theme song, Koko Euro Spoko, failed to summon a victory.