Spanish lesson can't dampen Irish spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am


They muttered the maths, doing the sums with the digits on their hands as they tried to get their heads around the group C numbers game.

'Better that Italy win against Croatia, actually,' said one hopeful fan in Irish green during the long walk through the Baltic drizzle to the ground.

The Gdansk Arena is in the heart of this port city's industrial landscape, close to the shipyard birthplace of the Solidarity movement founded by Lech Walesa, the mustachioed trade unionist who is credited with making the first push that toppled the Soviet dominoes, so ending communism in Europe and melting down the Iron Curtain that had long darkened a divided continent.

But the Irish arithmetic ahead of the Spain-Ireland kick-off was in vain because the result would prove academic. Within five minutes Torres had rounded Stephen Ward and netted the early goal the Spaniards had been banking on.

Then, with spectacular style and the same twist of the hips as a graceful matador running rings around an exhausted quarry, the Spanish killed the game off and sent the singing Irish packing. Not that there was much for them to pack - most were dressed for the poolside bars and sunloungers of Spanish costas than the brazen Baltic, replete as they were on the terraces in short-sleeved Ireland tops, flags draped round shoulders, silly wigs, oversized leprechaun hats and novelty ginger beards.

Maths and sensible attire were not the only problem areas for the Irish. Geometry also perplexed Giovanni Trapattoni's men, such were the acute angles of the Spanish passes as they ripped the Irish defence to pieces. Like a cat toying with a mouse, they flicked the ball at impossible degrees. Even with nine - often all 11 men - behind the ball and dug in deep, the Irish were done for. It was a different type of Spanish Inquisition - and a joy to watch.

You don't need to be Einstein to work out that Torres-plus-Silva-plus-Ramos-plus-Fabregas spells defeat. Gdansk was built on socialism and the graffiti walls plastered with protest messages and the art of the oppressed pay homage to the social struggles that have taken place here. But the Spanish were a class above and worth every metre of the 350-odd kilometre drive from Warsaw through torrential rain on poor roads to witness.

There's no denying much of Gdansk is bleak. I arrived late and parked my trusty Land Rover at a makeshift city-centre camping ground - the car park of a long redundant factory. The grim red-brick buildings with their smashed windows, industrial piping and towering smoke stacks, proletarian monuments under a leaden sky, weighed on the soul.

But then, walking over an elevated motorway bridge and with the stadium looming up above the factory roofs, the road ahead was suddenly splattered with bright shamrock green and a dash of dazzling orange - all mingled with flame Spanish red and silhouettes of matador hats and cut-out bulls, the damp flags of both nations hoisted in the brutish air.

Inside the 40,000-seat stadium, with the rain lashing down, the Irish appeared to outnumber the Spanish fans by five to one. But they sang and sang, on and on, while the Spanish danced in their seats and counted the goals.

There was a memorable, tear-jerking, hairs-standing-up-on-the-neck moment when the small number of local Poles present started swirling their Polska scarves and singing 'Stand up if you support Poland'. The Irish changed tune mid verse and joined in, standing, jumping and whirring their green scarves in unity. Then the Spanish joined in until the whole stadium was saluting the hosts of this inspiring exhibition of football, even if it was one-sided.

One Irish wag had made up a red, white and gold tricolour printed with 'Angela Merkel Thinks We're Working'. I am not sure if the Bundesbank is aware the German taxpayer is funding a percentage of the jollies of some of EU citizens, but Uefa will think it money well spent. This was priceless fan culture and in stark contrast to Poland v Russia, and the battles between thugs and riot police. Uefa should perhaps ask for more euro-zone quantitative easing. The money printed would pay for the Irish to hang about and invest more of their unique, unrivalled passion in the football carnival. No need to pay the Spanish fans, of course. They are clearly not going anywhere soon.

Back at my own campsite, the maps were out once more, and a route south marked in red. A weekend crossing of the border in to Ukraine to escape these ghastly weather fronts. There, June behaves as it should in summer and offers warmth and sunshine. You don't need to be good at maths to work out that's a winning move.