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Sopot is no Saipan!

IN THE 1920s, the resort of Sopot, on the Baltic coast in Poland, was one of the places to be in Europe. Politicians, singers, spies, gangsters and gamblers all flocked to the Polish resort, drawn by the sunny beaches, the gambling and the boozy lifestyle.

It's that same town which will be a home from home for Giovanni Trapattoni and 23 Irish footballers next summer, though gambling, booze and beaches are not on the agenda.

The 'S' word which has been attached to Irish football since that trip to Saipan ten years ago is still hovering ghost-like in the background, and the FAI are taking every effort to make sure there is absolutely no repeat.

On close inspection, it's clear that Sopot is no Saipan. The city, along with the neighbouring spot of Gdynia, which will be used as Ireland's actual training ground for the tournament in Poland, opened its doors for the Irish media in the last 24 hours and while the FAI have suffered barbs and brickbats over the last decade due to the debacle in Saipan, nothing has been left to chance in Poland.

The Irish team will use the Sheraton Hotel, right on the seafront in the centre of Sopot, with the beach and the Baltic Sea just a throw-in away.

In past tournaments, UEFA and FIFA have tended to keep football teams far away from the great unwashed, with squads being holed up in high-class resorts which were miles away from any potential contamination with the general public, but a new idea seems to have taken hold which will see the squads at Euro 2012 live close to the public and not up in the clouds.


The Irish team hotel here is right on the seafront with the famed pier of Sopot effectively in their back garden, and if given a few hours off to spend time with their families, the Irish players wouldn't have far to go to find something to do, especially if they have toddlers who will be easily pleased with a bucket and spade.

The hotel will be open for business with ordinary punters in June so the place won't be under complete lockdown by FAI security staff. However, Robbie Keane and his squad will sleep on a floor of the hotel which will be just for their use, with security on hand to redirect any stragglers, while they'll also eat in their own dining room, their food as usual under the supervision of team chef David Steele. A games room, again just for the players' use with the usual toys for big boys -- pool table, golf simulator, computer games -- will try to keep boredom outside.

Already there's been a concession of sorts from Poland to their Irish guests -- in summer time, tourists who want to walk along the pier have to pay 7 zloty (under €2) for the privilege, but the locals have agreed to concede to star power so Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Glenn Whelan and Robbie Keane will be allowed in for free.

They are rather glad to have the Irish team in town. "Across Europe there are two groups of fans who are known for their love of fun and football: the Irish and the Dutch, and we are proud to have one of those groups here in June, the Irish," Sopot's deputy mayor Bartosz Pioprusiewicz said earlier today.

This area is good value for money as you get three cities for the price of one -- Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia are separate towns in their own right but are also part of a tri-city area called the Trojmiasto and the Irish squad will spend time in them all.

Their hotel is in Sopot, the second of the group matches will be played in Gdansk, which is 14km to the south, and they'll do all their training in Gdynia.

Local club Lechia Gdansk would appear to be a ready-made partner for the Republic's squad -- they wear green and white -- but instead it's second-tier club Arka Gdynia which will be Ireland's home when it comes to work on the training ground.

A tidy 15,139 capacity all-seater stadium is so shiny and new it barely looks used as the ground only opened for business a year ago and while the blue and yellow décor all over the place would make Sweden -- or Tipperary, Shane Long would note -- feel welcome here, the locals are happy that Ireland have chosen this ground as their base.


Sweden had originally booked to use the facilities here before the Euro 2012 draw forced them to play their games in Ukraine and that allowed Ireland in.

Again, they are making a big deal out of Ireland's presence in the place and stadium officials told the Evening Herald that they expect around 10,000 fans to turn up for an open training session held by Ireland on June 5th, five days before the first group game against Croatia.

The facilities are top class but fans of Arka have not exactly been doused with success -- they're struggling to win promotion out of the second tier and their experience of European club football amounts to a Cup Winners' Cup defeat to a Bulgarian side in 1979. That's why crowds for home games rarely top 7,000, but they still expect to get at least 10,000 fans in to watch Ireland train.

No matter what happens in the final group game, against Italy in Poznan on June 18th, the Irish squad will return to their Sopot base, 320km away and either pack their bags for a journey home or get packed for a trip to Kiev for a quarter-final. Until then, we can only wait.