Ireland fans in festive spirit before Spain clash

Hordes of green-clad Ireland fans are refusing to let their

team’s perilous position at the European Championship dampen the

festive atmosphere ahead of its clash with Spain.

Ireland needs at least a point from Thursday’s Group C match

against the defending champion to avoid an early elimination. But

the team won’t be short of support, with several thousand fans

ready to deck Gdansk’s PGE Arena in green, white and orange.

”We have just got to pray for a miracle – loaves and wine,”

said Joanna Faughnan, a fan from Dublin who bought tickets for all

three group games. ”Ireland always does well when people think we

are down and out.”

Having qualified for a major tournament for the first time in 10

years, Irish fans are making the most of the opportunity to

party.

Thousands of fans poured into Poznan for the opening match and

even a 3-1 defeat against Croatia failed to puncture the festive

mood.

”It was incredible,” Faughnan said. ”The atmosphere was

absolutely electric. Even after the final whistle the fans stayed

and sang their hearts out.”

Most observers expect Spain to steamroller Ireland. The reigning

world and European champion has won 14 of its last 15 competitive

fixtures and is bidding for an unprecedented third straight major

international title. It will also be looking for points after being

held to a 1-1 draw by Italy in its opener.

Still, Ireland only lost to Spain at the 2002 World Cup on

penalties after forcing a 1-1 draw and there is a feeling among

Irish fans that a courageous rearguard action could frustrate their

illustrious opponent.

”I genuinely believe we will manage a draw,” said Fionn Mac

Aodhagain, from Rathcoole. ”Obviously that’s being very

optimistic, but we have to believe. This time the luck of the Irish

will be on our side.”

Spain’s players complained about the pitch in Gdansk being too

dry during their previous match, a 1-1 draw with Italy.

”That won’t bother the Irish,” said Sean McCarthy, a fan from

Westmeath. ”We just kick it up in the air, anyway.”

Despite a few arrests following scuffles in Poznan, Ireland’s

fans are generally managing to mix the alcohol intake with good

behavior.

So far, the rivalry between Spanish and Irish fans ahead of the

match in Gdansk has largely been friendly and laced with the

renowned Irish sense of humor.

Spanish fans dressed in red and yellow seemed to match the Irish

for numbers on Thursday as supporters thronged the center of the

city ahead of kickoff.

A Polish couple who had just got married were also caught by the

football fever, the groom donning a matador’s hat and waving a red

cape as his newlywed wife charged – and vice versa – to the cheers

of watching Spain fans.

Bullfighting costumes were a particular favorite, with chants of

”Viva Espana” ringing out around the city’s main square to the

accompaniment of drums and trumpets.

”We’re going to win the group and now you’re going to believe

us,” came the Irish response.

Ireland captain Robbie Keane has praised the support his team

has received and sounded a defiant note ahead of the showdown.

”Most people have probably written us off and not given us any

hope,” he said. ”But there’s not a chance I would go into a game

believing we are going to get beaten by anybody. It’s 11 versus 11

over 90 minutes.”

Mark Walsh can be reached at http://twitter.com/MAWalsh40