The small seaside town of Sopot has has more than a few flags fly over it during its 1,000 year history. But it’s the Irish tricolor that dominates this week. The town is not only the temporary home of the Irish national team, but also thousands of their fans, who aren’t letting the little matter of the football stop them from having a good time. As one Irishman put it, to one of the multitudes of television crews interviewing fans slumped outside the cafes along the famous Monte Cassino strip, “even getting to Poland is a victory for us”. Along with a few isolated groups of Spaniards, they’ve brought a big tournament atmosphere to the Baltic coast.
Gdansk comes alive
The most common question I’ve been asked when I’ve told people I’m spending my summer holiday in Gdansk is “isn’t it a bit grim and industrial”. Well, yes … in a few spots. The shipyards still survive and there are plenty of dank, Soviet era apartment blocks scattered around. But the old town is a fine example of Hanseatic League architecture, and it was almost as packed with fans as Sopot – although the Irish made up only 50 per cent or so of the crowd, rather than the 95 per cent they represented a few kilometres down the coast. While it was a little chilly to be sitting outside, plenty did on streets lined with pavement bars and cafes, most with outdoor television screens to lap up the atmosphere. The city’s attractions also include the vast Church of St Mary, where thousands of Solidarity supporters sought sanctuary during Poland’s era of martial law in the early 1980s. While the shipyard cranes occasionally hover above one of the towering townhouses, it’s nothing more than a reminder that this is a living city, not just a monument to the past.
But on the downside
My dad and I lasted approximately 10 minutes at the ‘Fan park’ built between Gdansk’s main station and the stadium. It has a massive screen, space for 30,000 fans and a Noel Gallagher concert booked in for next week. But on the day we visited, a handful of people stood around drinking the overpriced beer of the sponsors, watching a recreation of medieval swordfighting (strange, as the acres of warning signs outside specifically precluded bringing in weaponry) played table football or crowded the merchandise stall, eager to use up the credit on the prepaid debit cards provided by another sponsor, the only ‘currency’ allowed in the zone. It may come alive during matches, but on a gameday afternoon, it was nothing more than a desolate temple to commercialism – and it didn’t help that the army of staff, who vastly outnumbered the fans, insisted on frisking everyone on entry. Far better was the fan embassy in the city centre. The atmosphere was more relaxed, with information points for supporters of the various national teams. The sponsors were in evidence again but at least this time one of them, the Dutch bank ING, was offering something useful – free lockers where supporters could leave their bags. A sponsor doing something useful and thoughtful to promote their brand? Let’s hope it catches on.