Rite of Summer

Watching the draw for the group stages of an international tournament has always been something of a mystical experience. For one thing, they are almost always presented in English, despite it not being the mother tongue of the people running the show. Further, we come face to face with the “Question in English | Answer in Russian/French/Ukrainian” interview technique, though what illusions of spontaneous human multi-lingualism one may have held are shattered when the hostess reads her reactions to the interviewees answers off a pre-prepared card.

The show begins. Having never witnessed Cossack dancing in the past, I find the opening section of the show to be quite fascinating. Finally, I had discovered the inspiration for MC Hammer’s famous trousers. Our genial hosts are an extremely pretty Ukrainian lady and a Polish man, whose authentic English accent with a hint of Estuary is slightly unnerving. Has he been in Eastenders? After a short video montage, we stare down the barrel of truly unlistenable football-themed Europop, along with some rather creepily enthusiastic backing dancers.

Following this, one member of each of the previous 13 winning teams is wheeled out, holding an authentic signed football from that tournament. After the introduction member of Italy’s 1968 winning team, the camera cuts to a chirpy-looking Fabio Capello, sporting easily the biggest smile he’s managed during his tenure as England boss. Then follows one of those socially awkward moments where no-one’s really sure of the proper etiquette: the formal introduction of a football. The official match ball of Euro 2012 is dangled from a cable and receives a fairly generous, if slightly uneasy round of applause.

After what feels like days of foreplay, we are then forced to watch an instructional video for the machinations of the draw. It’s like sitting in the staff room at Woolworths and watching a 10 minute video of a man lifting a box “correctly”, leaving you with the same feeling of your life ebbing away before your eyes.

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino then takes over, hosting with all the flair of a strict headmaster handing out end of term awards to over-excited children. Zinedine Zidane is chided in French for being too enthusiastic with his handling of the first ball. Peter Schmiechel’s bolshy attempt at ad-libbing after Denmark are again drawn with Portugal leads to a few moments of decidedly awkward silence as Infantino desperately tries to get back on script. Any tension there may have been prior to the show has long been replaced by an overwhelming desire to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible so everyone can get down the pub.

The dignitaries in attendance who had long ago slipped into a coma are about to be startled by another bout of feisty Europop, but apart from that, the whole thing is over. Ireland are drawn with Croatia, Italy and Spain (gulp), while England face Sweden, France and co-hosts Ukraine. Back in the BBC studio, Mark Lawrenson is visibly aggrieved at Ireland being drawn in the toughest group, while Martin Keown raises his eyebrows bullishly and thinks England “will be fine.” Without Rooney, Martin? We’ll see.

Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Russia;
Group B: Holland, Denmark, Portugal and Germany;
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia and Italy;
Group D: Ukraine, France, Sweden and England.

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