Sports are a fickle, unpredictable, and wholly frustrating thing. Walking into a stadium, surrounded by the enthusiasm and warmth of anticipation brought on by the collective desires of those around you can breed an uncanny attachment to whatever match you are about to see. Here in Poznan, Poland, Irish fans ran the gamut of emotions before and after Ireland’s opening match of Euro 2012 against Croatia.
A small, quaint city with a large rustic square, Poznan was taken over by a sea of green in the days and hours leading up to the match. While Croatian fans carved out a significant niche for their checkered red-and-white shirts, it was the Irish fans that appeared at every turn counting down the minutes until kick off.
“My girlfriend told me that if I’m not back home in time for her sister’s wedding next week, then it’s over between us,” said Cormac Farrell, a fan from Dublin who I chatted with prior to the match. “If we can get a good result today [against Croatia] I plan on being here through the finals. There are plenty of girls out there, but there’s only one Irish team.”
With anticipation building all around the square, the throngs migrated towards the stadium. Harkening back to Irish coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s prayer for “Irish weather” in Poland, a steady rain washed over the town and only invigorated Irish support as chants of “Come On You Boys In Green” echoed on every street.
Before kickoff, with anticipation at an all-time high and with Irish support taking over at least two-thirds of the stadium, no one could predict what would happen on the field in just a few moments time. And yet, with all of this excitement and electricity in the air, the crowd stood gutted as, after just four minutes of play, Croatia floated a weak header past Shay Given to take a 1-0 lead.
I was sitting just seven rows behind Given’s net when the ball slipped past his fingers and just inside his post. To say the section was shocked is a drastic understatement. While many fans were still recovering from a rousing national anthem, their Irish team, who had prided itself on its stalwart defending, came out flat-footed and lazy.
Yet the fans continued to support the squad. Despite firecrackers and flares raining down from the Croatian supporters, Irish voices drowned them out and, on the heels of a Sean St. Ledger goal in the 19th minute, it appeared that Ireland had regained the advantage.
Nevertheless, Croatia proved too strong and, behind gut-wrenching goals just before half-time and immediately following the break, Ireland found themselves down 3-1 with any hopes for a result slipping out of view.
While the match itself was never pretty for Irish fans, their singing and enthusiasm helped to lessen the blow of a crushing loss. With time winding down, the Irish fans showed appreciation for their players, never wallowing in the agony of defeat, but rather rising above it. With outstretched arms, Irish voices banded together to belt out the repeating chorus of “The Fields of Athenry”, drowning out the final whistle.
It is no secret that, in the unpredicatable world of sport, there are going to be moments when expectation proves to be much different from reality. Going into the match, myself, along with countless others, felt this Irish squad could not only pull out a draw, but also steal a victory from the Croatians. Obviously, after this performance, perhaps our hopes were a little ambitious. Nevertheless, as the Green Army migrates five hours across the country to Gdansk, the incredible and frankly awe-inspiring level of support will remain constant and resolute, hoping that, against all odds, this team can bounce back.