Green fields of Poland

 

FOR THE thousands of Irish soccer supporters making their way to Poland and for the millions of others who will follow the fortunes of the Irish team at Euro 2012, these few days may prove to be the most enjoyable part of the whole experience. The giddy excitement, eager anticipation and unbridled optimism before a major sports event often gives way to a more realistic assessment when the action gets under way.

In the case of Ireland, that first test comes tomorrow night when Giovanni Trapattoni’s team meet Croatia in Poznan, knowing that a defeat could put a huge dent in their ambitions to progress to the quarter-finals of the tournament. That thought may not be enough to influence matters on the park but it will certainly provide the motivation for the supporters to make their voices heard and create a ‘’home match’’ atmosphere in a ground 1,500 kilometres from Lansdowne Road.

That Irish level of support will be unique among the teams going to Poland and the Ukraine for the European championships. With up to 20,000 expected to travel by virtually every mode of transport available, the support base will dwarf most other countries with bigger populations and far more successful teams.

For UEFA, images of happy supporters enjoying one of the great tournaments in world football may be badly needed over coming weeks. A number of controversies are bubbling below the surface as the championships begin, each with the potential to call into the question the wisdom of jointly staging the finals in Poland and the Ukraine. The governing body for European football has been on the defensive since part of the 2012 finals was awarded to the Ukraine. Infrastructural delays and price gouging in hotels have been compounded by the country’s human rights record and its imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

In recent days, issues of racism and anti-semitism in both host countries have also detracted from the build-up to what should be a celebration of sport. BBC’s Panorama programme may have exaggerated the issue in a revealing documentary but nobody is under any illusion that a problem exists. For all that, the next three weeks will be dominated by events on the field of play. It is to be hoped that when the teams walk out for the final in Kiev on July 1st the abiding memory of Euro 2012 will be outstanding players, sublime skills and thrilling matches. The beautiful game needs to live up to its moniker.

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