Crashed campervans and Croatian ruins
June 14 ~ When 20,000 Irish fans descended on Poznan last week – in every vehicle from rented motorhomes to rusty bangers – they rode in on an hysterical wave of optimism. My group rented a campervan in Hamburg and crashed into the back of bus just 20 minutes after getting on the road. Nonetheless we assured each other of certain success all the way to Poznan. But just two minutes were needed for Croatia to pop the ever expanding bubble of confidence. The fans sat largely despondent in the second half, until rousing into a huge, spine-tingling rendition of The Fields of Athenry in the closing moments.
Back at Camping Malta, a huge campsite and temporary home for thousands of Irish fans and a smattering of Croats, the post-mortem was grim. The fans were almost as shellshocked as the players. In our group, sipping cans of deadly strong Polish lager, we half-heartedly discussed the limitations of 4-4-2, Simon Cox's inexplicable introduction at left wing and the side's uncharacteristic poor defending. But in the end most conversations ended with a rueful shake of the head; Ireland were beaten by a better footballing side that was clearly ready for a big occasion. We'd blown it.
The next day we slowly packed the van for Gdansk and hit the road north, navigating perilously tight Polish roads infested with maniac drivers. Having been brought down to earth with such an unceremonious bang, we were bruised and shaken – but some of the fans old vigour returned on arriving at the beachside town of Sopot. With the sun shining, word filtered through that Spain were complaining about the Gdansk pitch. Happy days – Ireland won't be playing much football anyhow, we thought.
On Tuesday night in Sopot, the Green Army officially put the Croatia game firmly behind us. We exchanged even more outrageous reasons for optimism. Spain don't like it up 'em; they'll struggle to break us down; Jon Walters is due a hat-trick. Absurd, foolish, almost insane – but in the Baltic Coast sunshine, with the beer flowing, anything seems possible. Not even losing an impromptu penalty-kick competition against some Spaniards in Gdansk's main square, and then having my passport stolen, could possibly dampen the mood.
When making a statement to police, an officer asked me how Ireland would fare. "Oh Spain? 5-0," I replied. "You lose by that much?" "No, no – to Ireland." "Hahahaha..."
OK, maybe that's a tad unrealistic, but Ireland can get something from the game. If thousands of Irish people can make it all the way out to Gdansk, then the team can go one better. So we're optimistic. Crazily so. But this time we're more prepared for the comedown if Fernando Torres scores four. Ciaran McCauley