POZNAN, Poland (AP) — Wearing leprechaun hats, face paints, wigs in the colors of the national flag and the obligatory green shirt, thousands of Irish fans have descended on the Polish city of Poznan before their team's opening European Championship match against Croatia on Sunday.
Ireland may be a rank outsider to win the tournament — the team isn't even favored to qualify from its toughest group — but that doesn't mean the fans will pass up the opportunity to party.
In fact, with defending champion Spain and 2006 World Cup winner Italy to follow in Group C, the fans may leave a longer impression on Poland than the team.
But that doesn't seem to bother the ever-smiling Irish.
"We just want to have a singsong," said fan Brian Murphy, who was picking up his ticket outside the stadium. "It doesn't matter how far we go."
Ireland has waited a long time to reach the finals of a major international tournament. The last time the green-clad supporters dusted off their passports was 10 years ago when the team made the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
"It's been so long since Ireland qualified that everybody is going to make the most of it," John Kinsella, a 32-year-old chef from Limerick, said. "Anywhere where there is beer, we'll have a good time. There are flags everywhere and you can tell the Irish fans because they've all got white legs and green shirts."
Accompanying John on the trip is 28-year-old Polish girlfriend Paulina Kwiatkowska, who lives in Ireland, but is from Poznan.
"I told him that if Ireland qualifies for the tournament, we would come and stay with my family," Paulina said in impeccable English with a curious mix of Polish and Irish accents. "It's a good way to keep a boyfriend for a few years," she joked.
Fans had already begun arriving in Poznan by Friday night and by Saturday, the center of the city was heaving with Irish supporters enjoying local beers, as well as sampling Polish vodka.
Four fans had even dressed in full-length green lycra body suits for the festivities, while another supporter stepped out in a costume of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
A handful of fans with clothes in the distinctive red-and-white check of Croatia also braved the city center Saturday, though any attempts at chanting were quickly drowned out by the throngs of Irish.
Although no major problems were reported, Polish police said 14 football fans were arrested early Sunday after a brawl broke out. Bottles and chairs were thrown during the fight on the main square. Ten Poles, three Irish fans and a Croat were arrested.
Ireland was among the countries to receive a financial bailout from the European Union after the economy tanked, and the Irish team is well aware of the effort fans have made to cheer them on.
"We have to be proud about our country and our people because they make a very big sacrifice," Ireland's Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni said. "The players know this. It's important to guarantee our total commitment."
Ireland captain Robbie Keane acknowledged that it had been a rollercoaster ride for the country's fortunes since the last time the team qualified for an international tournament.
"It's been a difficult 10 years. The country has been on its knees for a few years, so it's given the country a lift. It's up to us as a team to give them as much joy as possible," he said.
The fans' commitment means Ireland should enjoy a strong vocal support at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan.
"This was predictable ever since the draw was made," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said with a shrug. "(Ireland) will have a huge support."