Poland is a country which has had all too much experience of invasion. Indeed at the beginning of the 20th Century it did not even appear on the maps of Europe having been partitioned between three Empires – The German, Austro Hungarian and Russian. Recent history was no better - the Nazi invasion and occupation which saw one fifth of the population die and the country and its people languished during the years of Soviet dominated totalitarianism before regaining its rightful place as an independent nation again.
So today’s Poland does not take its freedom for granted and relishes the freedom of travel which has allowed Poles to work throughout Europe (170k + in Ireland alone) and many to visit and discover its wonderful towns such as the Western Polish city of Poznan, sometimes claimed to be the first capital of the kingdom of Poland.
So Poland bid with neighbouring Ukraine to host the European Cup football tournament, UEFA 2012, and Poznan experienced an invasion of Irish football supporters, The Green Army. Wearing leprechaun hats, face paints, wigs in the colours of the national flag and the obligatory green shirt, thousands of Irish fans have descended on the Polish city of Poznan before their team's opening European Championship match against Croatia on. Ireland was a rank outsider to win the tournament - the team wasn't even favoured to qualify from the toughest group - but that doesn't mean the fans would pass up the opportunity to party. Indeed the Irish UEFA 2012 campaign could be characterised by the slogan “Worst Team, Best Fans.”
In fact, with defending champion Spain and 2006 World Cup winner Italy to follow in Group C, the fans left a longer impression on Poland than the team. But that didn't seem to bother the ever-smiling Irish. "We just want to have a singsong," said fan Brian Murphy, who was picking up his ticket outside the stadium. "It doesn't matter how far we go." Ireland has waited a long time to reach the finals of a major international tournament. The last time the green-clad supporters dusted off their passports was 10 years ago when the team made the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
"It's been so long since Ireland qualified that everybody is going to make the most of it," John Kinsella, a 32-year-old chef from Limerick, said. "Anywhere where there is beer, we'll have a good time. There are flags everywhere and you can tell the Irish fans because they've all got white legs and green shirts."
Fans had already begun arriving in Poznan by Friday night and by Saturday, the centre of the city was heaving with Irish supporters enjoying local beers, as well as sampling Polish vodka. Four fans had even dressed in full-length green lycra body suits for the festivities, while another supporter stepped out in a costume of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. A handful of fans with clothes in the distinctive red-and-white check of Croatia also braved the city centre Saturday, though any attempts at chanting were quickly drowned out by the throngs of Irish.
Ireland was among the countries to receive a financial bailout from the European Union after the economy tanked, and the Irish team is well aware of the effort fans have made to cheer them on. "We have to be proud about our country and our people because they make a very big sacrifice," Ireland's Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni said. "The players know this. It's important to guarantee our total commitment." Ireland captain Robbie Keane acknowledged that it had been a rollercoaster ride for the country's fortunes since the last time the team qualified for an international tournament. "It's been a difficult 10 years. The country has been on its knees for a few years, so it's given the country a lift. It's up to us as a team to give them as much joy as possible," he said.
|Poznan photos being exhibited in St Stephen's Green Dublin|
For the record Ireland lost all three of their UEFA 2012 matches, 3-1 to Croatia, 4-0 to Spain and 2-0 to Italy. However this left the fans undaunted in respect of having a good time and their behaviour of this invading Green Army earned the affection of their Polish hosts. Indeed, the Irish fans made such an impression in Poland that residents of Poznan gathered to sing the fans off when they were leaving at the end of the tournament. A local newspaper also gave the fans a front-page headline, declaring ‘The Irish, We Will Miss You’. Now a tribute has appeared on home soil in Dublin, after billboards and posters appeared at O’Connell Bridge and Grafton Street declaring that the Irish are the ‘Kings of the Craic’ and ‘Poznan thanks you’.