Euro 2024 diary: polyester, parkrun and how England squad might vote

Sunday

Berlin to Gelsenkirchen

The early-morning train rolls into Bochum only half an hour late, which, given the state of the German railways these days, is basically a sliding-knees, punching-the-air triumph. A friend has come from London for the England v Slovakia game. It’s his first experience of England at a major tournament and as we squeeze into a packed tram rolling towards Gelsenkirchen there is a reminder, in his bemused gaze, of just how weird this whole ritual of football travel is. The overcrowding, the forced intimacy, the loud performative masculinity, the speed with which you get used to the sight of people urinating into foliage. “The smell of fat men in polyester shirts,” my startled friend will message me later, “is vile.”

Monday

Bochum to Berlin

I’ve lived in Berlin for the past three years. This has been an arrangement with numerous advantages: a broader perspective on the world, free childcare, abundant access to as many salty bread products as I desire. But this summer has been the best part of all. By far the hardest aspect of this ridiculously cool job is spending time away from home and tournament summers can be a boon and a bane in this regard: a month without seeing the family or towels that come in colours other than white. This summer, I can simply get the train home after the game. Do a little light work. Pick the kids up from nursery. Hoist them on to my shoulders. Watch as they squabble hysterically over a salty bread product. Feel a kind of intense, grounding gladness you may as well call pure happiness.

Tuesday

Berlin to Leipzig

Nothing against the towns of the Ruhr – hey, I love grey concrete boxes and petrochemical factories as much as the next man – but something changes tonally once you cross the old border into the East. Leipzig is just a wonder of a place, a city the size of Leeds with the feel of a village, stuffed with interesting buildings, green spaces, artists and creatives. Tonight, mainly Turks and Austrians. It’s one of the games of the tournament so far: a biblical epic played at a lightning pace in furious rain by two teams for whom this is basically a gigantic leap into the unknown. Turkey win 2-1; Arda Guler runs the game; Mert Gunok makes the save of the century; everyone leaves the pitch basically looking like they’ve drowned.

Mert Gunok pulls off the ‘save of the century’ from a Christoph Baumgartner header. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Wednesday

Leipzig to Berlin

“So,” I ask the football editor, Marcus, “is this more of a what-I-did kind of diary, or an innermost-thoughts kind of diary? Am I a chronicler of names, facts and places, or of the interior life and all its screaming darknesses? Because last time I did this in Qatar, I sort of pitched it somewhere in between, and Piers Morgan described it as “faux World Cup virtue-signalling” by a “woke journo on expenses”. Because there’s a paradox here, right? The diary is supposed to be a receptacle for our most private thoughts, and yet here is a diary being conceived and written with a mass audience in mind. Well, an audience. “Are you making me a character in the diary?” Marcus replies. “Don’t do that.”

Thursday

Berlin

Some discussion among colleagues as to how the England team will have voted in the general election. The broad consensus: Jordan Pickford probably didn’t vote, Kyle Walker and Harry Kane went Tory, Kieran Trippier and Bukayo Saka went Labour, Kobbie Mainoo went for an independent who promised to keep the local mobile library open, and Declan Rice voted tactically for the Lib Dems. Phil Foden, meanwhile, kept trying to vote using Jude Bellingham’s ballot paper, and vice versa, and then Cole Palmer came along and did the same, and they just put in a load of indiscriminate crosses and the whole thing ended up being spoiled. Who says political satire is dead?

Friday

Berlin to Hamburg

One thing no one tells you about covering a tournament is how little of it you end up seeing. While everyone at home has their wallcharts and viewing schedules all mapped out, for the working journalist tournaments are largely something glimpsed: a silent flickering television in a packed media centre, a buffering mobile phone screen on a long-distance train. “Where were you for Germany v Spain?” my grandchildren will ask me one day, almost certainly not expecting the reply: “At a bratwurst stand in Hamburg, straining to watch a shaky iPad stream in among roughly 175 bobbing heads.” Was it a good game or not? Sadly, I’m none the wiser.

Saturday

Hamburg to Düsseldorf

France v Portugal goes to penalties. Get back to the hotel about 2am. Then the police are called because of Portugal fans causing a disturbance in the bar. It is something of a miracle, then, that your sleep-deprived correspondent is still able to make it to the parkrun startline in Hamburg’s Alstervorland. Let’s just say a personal best was very much not recorded. Then to Düsseldorf, where – with a pleasing circularity – the week ends as it began, in a German industrial town with England shirts as far as the eye can see and the overwhelming smell of polyester. What is it they say about the journey being more important than the destination?

The Guardian

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