THE SMILING FACE and bushy moustache of Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be one of those in line to greet Giovanni Trapattoni and his Ireland team when they run out onto the pitch to face the might of Spain in just 56 days time here in Gdansk.
Changed times since Trapattoni's first visit to this famous port city, just under 30 years ago, when he managed Juventus and had to cope with a tricky situation, and also effectively battle the whole Polish nation, just to get a result on the football field.
Trap's Juve played Lechia Gdansk in the Cup Winners’ Cup in September 1983 and had to come from 2-1 down to win 3-2 on what was a very testing night for a Juve side packed with stars like Boniek and Platini, as Poland was in a state of upheaval since the ending of the state of martial law, imposed by the communist authorities to smother the Solidarity movement, just two months before Juve's visit.
Walesa was smuggled into the stadium and popped up in the stands along with the 40,000 fans – like an on-the-run Michael Collins sneaking into an All-Ireland final, and the crowd began chanting for Walesa and for the Gdansk side – even though the stadium authorities turned up the music on the PA to drown out their anti-government chants, all of that making for a fascinating backdrop for a worried Trapattoni.
No matter what went on in 1983, 2012 will see Walesa and his city welcome Ireland here next June – Walesa is one of the public faces of the tournament here and was honoured to be given his tournament ID card with the number 00001.
Gdansk is a real home from home for Spain – with a logistical situation that Ukraine-bound teams like England can only envy due to their horrendous travel schedule. The Spanish will play all three of their group games in Gdansk and their team base is close by, in Gniewino, a spot that was being lined up for use by Ireland if the Spanish didn't want it.
Ireland will feel at home in the match stadium here, the 50,000 capacity PGE Arena, as it's the home ground of top flight side Lechia Gdansk, who wear green and white.
Workers are still putting the finishing touches to the stadium, which is also open for business as Lechia are playing their home games here at the moment. It shows as the playing surface looks less than healthy, though the pitch will be torn up and relaid in time for the Euros.
The place will also welcome the Irish players and supporters. A fan zone in the city centre is being built which can accommodate up to 50,000 of the fans who can't get tickets for the games, and they are expecting a large Irish presence – estimates from Ireland indicate that around 20,000 Ireland fans will travel but city officials told the Evening Herald today that they are predicting an influx of 35,000 Ireland fans.
Many of those will of course be travelling without tickets in the hope that tickets turn up on the day, and that is a gamble many are willing to take, hoping that Poles in possession of match tickets will be keen to sell them. The local authorities here insisted that when the first batch of tickets were put on sale, 2,000 were set aside exclusively for residents of Gdansk.
The Spain-Italy game here is the one that they all want to see so Poles who have tickets, and who are not that fussed about seeing Sean St Ledger and Stephen Ward, may opt to sell them close to the match date of June 14, though a scan of the small ads in the local media here today has no sign of tickets already being offered for sale.
With reasonably-priced food and beer – around €3 for a pizza in some joints and under €2 for a pint – the fans who come here won't be hit too hard on the wallet, and there are reports that the initial flurry of price rises by hoteliers has calmed down and beds in and around Gdansk are on offer in June for the usual summer rate, so no sign of 1000pc price hikes.
Sightseeing and museum trips are usually low on the list of priorities for travelling football fans, but there's plenty in and around Gdansk which would deserve a visit by Irish supporters.
The famous Gdansk Shipyards, where the Solidarity movement began to shake up the communist system, offers tours and is worth seeing and some Irish fans may even end up sleeping there as a 5,000 capacity campsite will be opened on the grounds of the shiywards.
And Westerplatte, where the first shots of the Second World War were fired, is also a short trip away from Gdansk and Ireland fans could well take a break from the boozing for a few hours to check out one of the most important sites in Polish history and then head back to Gdansk for the clash with Spain which will be the biggest game of their lives for most of the Ireland squad.