“Hope,” as Red warned Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, “can be a dangerous thing.”
We Irish fans can certainly attest to that. We arrived in a Poland with a grandiose Eurovision of success, but despite our impressive singing, it looks very possible that we will return home with ‘nul points’.
It was Poland’s turn to collectively groan as a nation on Saturday night, as their 1-0 defeat to the Czech Republic eliminated them from the tournament - just when you felt their party was getting started, just when everybody was starting to buzz with joy, just when the fans were beginning to hope.
I’ve only been here a brief time, but the one thing I’ve noted that this otherwise wonderful country lacks is a little bit of self-confidence.
Before the Poles' second group match against the Russians, I asked a Polish couple sitting in front of me if they thought their team could get a result.
- “No, Poland never wins anything.”
As Eurosport Poland’s editor Peter Kwiatkowski explained to me earlier in the week: “We like foreigners but we don't like ourselves.
“We don't trust each other. When we see a Pole smiling to another Pole, we think to ourselves: ‘What is that guy trying to do?’”
However, the way the national team fought back in the Russia game to earn a 1-1 draw and give themselves a chance of qualifying with victory over the Czechs seemed to have lifted away all the negative vibes, albeit temporarily.
Simply put, on Saturday night, the country was bouncing.
In Toruń, where I’m based, looking for somewhere in the Old Town square to watch the Czech match three hours before kick-off proved to be a fools’ errand.
Most seats were already occupied, while the tables that were free had reserved signs plastered on them.
I eventually found a local pub on a side street, where the décor might have been cheap and cheerful but not as much as the booze.
- 80p pints + £1.20 vodka and cokes = hungover Lord of Gdansk
Before the match, the television was set to a Polish news channel, but the only news being reported concerned the match in Wroclaw.
Footage bounced from the fan zones in the tournament’s host cites of Warsaw, Poznan, Wroclaw and Gdansk and each one was bursting at the seams with people wearing the country’s red and white.
About half an hour before the match, one supporter proposed to his girlfriend at the fanzone in Gdansk in front of 30,000 people and millions more watching on TV. She said yes, and the mood was celebratory.
Then, of course, the match started - and initially it seemed the confidence of the fans was well placed as Poland began ripping into the Czechs.
However, after missing a couple of good chances, you could feel anxiety seeping back into the Polish people around me. Old habits die hard.
Half-time came: it was still 0-0, and Poland had been playing well, but hope was beginning to be tested. A worried Polish girl sat beside me.
- “You’re playing well, do you think you can win?”
- “I hope so….but I don’t think so.”
- “Ah don’t be so pessimistic.”
However, the Polish team seemed to be similarly paralysed by pessimism in the second-half. They began to lack ideas and energy, the Czechs scored, the Poles were going out.
- “See, I told you I wasn’t being pessimistic, I was being realistic.”
At least for this one pretty blonde girl, there would be some sense of victory from the evening. As she went to the bathroom, the guy she was with spoke to me in what was most definitely NOT a Polish accent.
- “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What the hell is a girl like that doing with a guy like me?”
Tom from Tallaght, let me once again salute you!
But while Tom was having a ball of a time, and his two friends started salivating and strategising for the impending arrival of “her mate”, most people around Toruń wore grimaced faces of disappointment.
However, back in the Old Town some fans were having their own 'Fields of Athenry' moment, lamenting their loss with a passionate sing-song.
As I stood back and admired their defiance, the riot police arrived and looked on with menacing growls. There was no trouble, not even a hint of it, but they seemed to be there ‘just in case.’
It seems that this European Championship has taught the Poles how to loosen up a little, hopefully the defeat to the Czechs won’t see them quickly forget this and revert back to bad habits.
- “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Tom from Tallaght was not the only Irishman to score in Poland on Saturday. The Irish fans beat the Polish fans 3-1 in a charity match in Toruń that raised over €5,000 for the town’s local hospice – with another €600 tacked on by one fan who volunteered to have his head shaved at half-time.
A mixed crowd, the size of which most League of Ireland sides would have been happy with, attended the match, and the Poles that turned up were treated to two very Irish traditions: some Irish dancing and Tayto crisps!
“Are these your country’s crisps?” one Pole asked me while munching into a bag of cheese and onion handed to him personally by ‘Mr Tayto’. “They’re good.”
Local schoolkids then proceeded to stuff bags and bags of the stuff under their tracksuits to take home with them, but still had countless left to fling into the crowd.
Most were happy to have a little taste of home except for one fan who threw his bag back.
“We want King!” he shouted, as he hankered for Tayto’s main rival in the competitive Irish crisp market.
It was a great day for a great cause and cemented the fantastic relationship built up between the Irish fans and the Toruń community this month.
There was even a guy dressed as FAI chief executive John Delaney, seemingly taking undue credit for the Irish win.
Farewell Toruń, you’ll be missed!