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Poland's goalkeeper Szczesny receives a red card by referee Carballo of Spain during their Group A Euro 2012 soccer match against Greece at the National stadium in Warsaw (LEONHARD FOEGER/Reuters)
Poland's goalkeeper Szczesny receives a red card by referee Carballo of Spain during their Group A Euro 2012 soccer match against Greece at the National stadium in Warsaw (LEONHARD FOEGER/Reuters)

Euro 2012

Wrong man hogs spotlight as Poland and Greece draw Add to ...

This was supposed to be a controversy-free Euro tournament. On the field, anyway. Where UEFA can control matters. An extra official is behind each goal to ensure that extra eyes determine the reality of goal-line incidents.

Fine. But the opening game of Euro 2012 will be remembered for the number of controversial refereeing decisions, not the quality of play.

Two red cards, a saved penalty and a disallowed goal defined the 1-1 tie between Poland and Greece. The referee problem is back, big time.

Some 50,000 Poles left the stadium here in a subdued mood at the end of the game. Some could be heard muttering “straszny,” the Polish word for ‘terrible” and a reflexive term used when times are hard. It’s an apt term for what happened.

The game? Oh, the game began delightfully, with Poland running rampant and Greece looking petrified for a while.

Poland, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with all routes forward and from the wings leading to striker Robert Lewandowski, was on the attack after 90 seconds, with Lewandowski through on goal. That was just a warning. At four minutes, Greek keeper Kostas Chalkias was forced to make a fingertip save. Lewandowski, on whose shoulders so much hope had been placed, seemed to thrive on the expectations. The crowd thrilled to his pace and sharpness and he knew it.

The long-established Greek reliance on set-pieces to score goals became emphatic early on, when Greece was awarded a free kick near the halfway line. Even at that distance a goal was on their minds. The Polish fans roared in exasperation as the Greeks took their sweet time with the elaborate set-up, and it almost paid off. But Poland’s goal, when it came in the 17th minute, had a this-must-happen surge to it. It was Lewandowski, of course, perfectly placed to deliver a header. In the 38th minute, Damien Perquis came close to making it 2-0.

But by then, something else had entered the game to diminish it – the whims of Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. The man voted by the Spanish Football Association as the top referee in La Liga in the 2010-11 season, is new to international soccer at this level and it showed. His 44th-minute red card, for a second yellow, to Greek player Sokratis Papastathopoulos was undeserved. All players on the field knew it and it changed everything.

Poland, already rampant, played the second half against a 10-man Greece. Mind you, if Greece ended the first half shell-shocked, the players began the second half determined to right a wrong. It didn’t take long for the Greeks to force an equalizer. Substitute Dimitris Salpingidis fired it in and was later at the core of the action again when brought down by Poland’s goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, who was shown a straight red card. That one, maybe, was deserved. And then, more incident – Giorgos Karagounis’s poorly taken penalty was saved by Polish substitute Przemyslaw Tyton.

Sure, Poland’s failure to capitalize on a one-goal lead over a 10-man team was their downfall. The emotional heft behind that first-half performance became crystal clear. Once the adrenalin evaporated, Poland seemed strangely lacking in ambition.

But by then the game was out of the players’ control. The referee’s proclivity for overreaction and red and yellow cards became the dominant dynamic. Players on both sides fell to the ground easily, angled for a bit of fakery to lead to the ref seeing a foul, and that made the referee the most important figure on the field. Which he is never supposed to be.

This was a remarkable game, especially for a tournament opener, when teams typically play a cagey game, anxious not to falter at the first hurdle. Here there was a first half of fluid, attacking soccer from Poland and a memorable leading-man appearance from Lewandowski. There was an admirable comeback from Greece after a poor first half.

And there are long-term consequences for both teams and for the rest of the Euro tournament. Greece will be encouraged, having survived this game by showing grit, organization and determination. Poland will worry, facing a confident, skilled Russia on Tuesday. A game already rife with historical meaning has become a must-win, and anything less will lead to “straszny” being wailed by the masses here, not merely muttered.

It’s all part of the narrative arc of this Euro, now being shaped. Pity it’s being shaped in large part by a whimsical referee. The opening game should be memorable for more than the mistakes of the man who doesn’t kick the ball.

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