The Night The Poles Came To Town

At the moment, because of my teaching duties, I am reading a lot about perceptions of the Irish as barbarians on the periphery of Europe from the Ancient Greeks, the Romans through Gerald of Wales and Edmund Spenser. The idea that being so far from the centre of the world (in the period of the Roman Empire) and thus uncivilized was strong in my mind when Ireland took on Poland tonight. That sense of being a peripheral nation has only intensified since we have become one of the toxic pariahs who required a bailout from the EU-ECB-IMF following the credit crunch in 2008. One of the major stories to develop from last night’s match at the Aviva was the huge numbers of Polish fans who attended and basically embarrassed the Irish support (or rather, the lack thereof). But really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised by the support for the Polish team from their many ex-pats now residing in Ireland.

And it really was Ireland. This wasn’t just the Polish of Dublin, this really was the Polish of Ireland. Flags from a huge array of Irish towns was visible, all on the red and white flags of Poland: Ballina in Co. Mayo, Youghal, Co. Cork, and Limerick were just some of those that featured.

Since the game was on Sky Sports, I was listening to the game on the wireless (that’s the radio!) and it sounds as if the Polish fans who were there really brought the kind of atmosphere that friendlies in the Aviva have lacked. There was plenty of pyro from the Poles as well, bangers loudly exploding, flares lighting. A real flavour of European football was brought to the game. To anyone like myself who is familiar with League of Ireland football, will not have found this too unusual, even in the Aviva. Back before Christmas, St. Patrick’s Athletic brought a similarly explosive and entertaining fan presence to the FAI Cup Final.

Though I might write about the Irish as footballing barbarians, I’m not sure this argument could hold water – after all, we are being taught our football by one of the masters from the centre of the Roman world. Instead, it was the Polish that brought a little bit of European culture to our footballing periphery last night. Eric Hobsbawm brilliantly noted in his Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality:

What has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in his life has wanted, to be good at.

Given that, and given the rarity of big, public occasions for ex-pats (ones that aren’t saccharine, or officially sanctioned by the host nation) to really display their sense of national pride and identity in that host nation then it is no surprise that the Polish were in such fine voice last night. And that they came from all over the country and displayed their new homes on their national flags shows that these guests feel sufficiently at home to subvert this particular footballing tradition.  Last year, I attended a Sparta Prague game in the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic. The atmosphere was utterly electric – the game in the Aviva sounded like that night sounded – utterly European. If we are to move from the periphery towards the centre, then perhaps we should take a leaf out of our Polish visitors’ book – encourage an especially European atmosphere at our football matches, rather than feeling embarrassed that we were shown how to create an atmosphere by the guests of our nation.

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