Defeat hurts but craic still Italia 90

 

Two matches that couldn’t have gone worse, The Fields of Athenry sounds like a parody of being an Irish fan. But we feel better, writes DAVID McKECHNIE

THE TAXI driver is so excited for us that we check the laminated card on the back of his seat to see if he might charge for it. He is throwing approving glances through the mirror at the Italia 90 jersey I am squeezed into and reeling off boozy anecdotes about following Ireland abroad in the good old days.

“Brought us to the brothels the minute we got there,” he says proudly. There is a thoughtful pause. “Four of those lads have died since.” For a moment it is unclear whether these events were connected.

It is 7.45am – 36 hours before Croatia. We are suffering from not-having-slept-before Euro 2012 fever. There is a 50 cent coin under the seat but bending over to pick it up would rip the Italia 90 jersey into at least two pieces. The jerseys must be protected at all costs: without them, as we travel through London and Berlin, we will not attract little knowing smiles from strangers, as though we are babies or little old ladies. These are the smiles that say: “You are grown men, but following a football team around the world like this is really very sweet.”

On this occasion the Italia 90 jersey has another function, which is to symbolise a great and final leap I have taken through time from football reporter to supporter. All football reporters are former fans, but few fans are former football reporters, and it was unclear whether the residual disdain I had for the excesses of the supporting mob would pass.

For some members of the travelling press corps there is a gulf between their experience of Ireland fandom and the prodigious myth of the Greatest Supporters in the World. In the end, the suspicion that fills that gap boils down to one key detail: the fans are on holiday, and you are not.

Croatia, Spain and Italy were alarming opponents, but nothing frightens us more than the prospect of the Ireland supporters’ bus from Berlin to Poznan. We have dreams, but no songs to sing, and not very much beer, and the occasion is set for our grand and terrible exposure. We climb into the front seats and wait. Young men in Ireland regalia begin talking to one another, asking questions, being nice.

They aren’t singing all that much. Some aren’t drinking beer. On toilet breaks they take photos of themselves with friendly Croatian fans. People pass sweets and vodka and talk about the game. No one sticks his bare arse against the window. It is very disappointing.

On the main square in Poznan people have been drinking all day, climbing poles and singing, supping unclean water from the fountain. The rain has been coming down lightly but persistently and the sky is as drearily overcast as Dublin in July. The faces of Ireland and Croatia fans are pressed up weirdly against the glass in overstuffed olde worlde trams bound for the stadium, their hands are banging the ceilings, and a thrilling din of football song is spilling into the street.

Local people are impressed and they take photographs of the squashed, singing creatures. At the tram stop near the square the atmosphere is uncomfortably close to fever pitch. Both sets of fans are here, and the singing exchanges are friendly, but there is a booze-driven wildness too.

A young Ireland fan steps on to the tracks and pulls his pants down, and for a next three minutes he performs a grotesque routine in which the hundreds present get to study his genitals from an array of unusual angles. For a fleeting moment his scrotum seems to take on the appearance of Dirk Bogarde. The local people who have been taking pictures of fans singing look confused, and some lead their children away. One little girl’s ice cream begins to melt down her hand. Drunk as they are, the other Ireland fans are not impressed by this behaviour, and a chorus of boos breaks out. He turns towards them, undeterred, and takes it from the top.

Outside the Poznan stadium it is Euro 2012: The Apocalypse. Little groups of opposing fans are swaying and singing in one another’s faces. People are milling and tripping everywhere. It is Oxegen on steroids. There are thousands of empty cans strewn about in dirty pools of rainwater and beer. A huge, older Irish fan has collapsed against a pole and his friend is trying to reef him up off the dirt.

A Croatian fan comes over and gives him an imaginary yellow card for diving. No one seems to notice it is lashing rain. Another Croatian is reaching out with tears in his eyes to an Irish group singing “We all dream of a team of Gary Breens”, believing this must be the anthem into which all the hopes and dreams of the Irish nation are historically poured.

Inside the stadium, Croatia beat Ireland 3-1.

On the train north towards Gdansk the next morning the clouds clear and warm sunshine brings promise of a fresh start. Ireland fans stand calmly in ones and twos in the corridor and watch the countryside go by. In one compartment, four guys from Norway are decked out in their local club’s green-and-white hooped jerseys and dance to the sounds coming from a huge portable stereo. Everyone is enjoying it and some young Poles dance with them.

The Norwegians have chosen to follow Ireland because “Irish fans know how to party”. They jokingly promise to camp outside the Spain hotel the night before the game. Next door, a sweet Polish-Irish couple who met in Bray are sitting quietly. A little Irish boy with a plastic hammer is swinging his legs beside his father.

For the four days up to the Spain game the pretty town of Sopot, where Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad is based, is a human vortex into which thousands of Irish supporters are steadily sucked.

It is a tremendously friendly place, and the beautiful girls serving food and drinks, and those walking up and down Bohaterów Monte Cassino, the main street, seem flattered and pleased by the gently persistent attentions of Trap’s Army. The prettiest ones are applauded when they pass. A fan from Limerick is inconsolable that a friend has brought both his girlfriend – his girlfriend! – and his sister on the trip. “I mean why the hell would you bring your girlfriend to this?” The sister is off-limits, which hasn’t helped.

Down at the main square some Ireland fans have draped a huge tricolour with a message across a fence: Szukasz mê¿a? Pogadajz nami. Are you looking for a husband? Talk to us.

Every Ireland fan seems to have had a photo or a drink with John Delaney, the chief executive of the FAI. He is, between the jigs and the reels, a great fella altogether, they say.

Bars grow more packed by the day. “You’d be sick of the taste of beer,” one fan says bitterly.

On the main square at 3am a game of football, in its loosest sense, breaks out between supporters of all nations. There are no teams or goals, but, in a metaphor for Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign, simply holding on to the ball for a few seconds seems to represent some kind of victory. On this very spot the following night thousands of Ireland fans gather for a pre-match carnival of singing and making merry.

It is a brilliant and raucous and convivial celebration. “We’re going to top the group!” they scream. Poles and Spanish are having the time of their lives in this friendly and generous place. An unwary young man who has climbed a pole has his pants pulled down. An Irish girl standing underneath him grimaces.

Spain win 4-0 in the rain at the Gdansk arena. It is the most sobering occasion imaginable, yet five minutes before the end a chorus of The Fields of Athenry spreads around the stadium like a particularly potent strain of Irishness for which there is no cure. At the end of two matches that couldn’t have gone any worse, games in which Trapattoni’s team were unmercifully thumped, the rendition feels like a parody of being an Ireland fan.

But we do feel better about ourselves.