In the waning moments of the Poland-Czech Republic game on Saturday night, the atmosphere in Wroclaw was notably subdued. The Polish fans had begun partying sometime that morning, drinking vodka and beer, chanting, laughing. Old-town Wroclaw was packed with fans by 4 p.m. local time, more than four hours before the game started. But now, as the final whistle approached, the crowd had gone quiet. Instead of merry fans waving their scarves and singing -- as they’d done all afternoon -- they clutched them to their chests and whispered prayers.
The Polish team needed a win to go on to the next round, but they were about to lose. Things didn’t look good. The team hadn’t attacked well throughout the second half and it didn’t look like it was going to score in the final minutes. Often in these situations, realists will look at their watches and head for the exits in an effort to beat the crowd. In downtown Wroclaw, that didn’t happen. The Polish supporters stayed and watched their team to the last kick, hoping, praying. At the final whistle, they didn’t turn violent. They didn’t seem angry with their team. Rather, the fan zone broke into a polite round of applause and then everyone shuffled off into the night to contemplate what could have been.
There was a feeling of inevitability about the defeat. The Polish team was the worst-ranked team at Euro 2012. You could argue it performed about as well as expected, finishing at the bottom of the group. The Polish supporters hoped for more, of course, but they didn’t expect it. Nothing was guaranteed.
And so while many fans were drunk and disappointed after the final whistle, they weren’t angry. They were contemplative and they bemoaned their country’s inability to produce a good team -- one man drunkenly lectured me on the misuse of his tax dollars, saying, “I pay tax, but for what?” -- but they recognized their team had worked hard and done its best.
In the small hours of Sunday morning, one fan put it like this: “We’re not good at football, but we’re good at hope.”
While the team didn’t win, it did give its country something to get excited about, something to dream about. And isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we fans get so emotionally involved in our teams? So we can collectively imagine some great achievement, however remote the actuality of achieving that thing is? It’s like playing the lottery: You play to dream, not because you expect to get rich.
As the fans filed out of the city center through the cobblestone streets of Wroclaw's old town, past the majestically lit castle (pictured above), they realized the Polish dream was over. Yet, it had been a good dream and a good run. If you gauge the Polish team in hope rather than goals scored, there isn’t a more accomplished team in the tournament.