The cities where the matches are played and those where the teams are lodged surprise both the fans and the players with their preparedness. Different flags and languages coexist on and in institutional buildings and private homes. Warsaw, of course, is the number one destination for the fans, but smaller centres too have happily embraced the cultural mix.

Legionowo, a county town near Warsaw, is said to have become “Little Greece”. “Legionowo Welcomes” says – in Greek – a sign on the local crisis management centre building, which the Greek team’s bus passes on its daily way to the training field from their hotel in the nearby Jachranka. The locals already know at what time the bus appears on the streets and they stop, waving to the players, greeting them.

Events popularising Greek culture and cuisine are held in town. In fact, Legionowo has been preparing for the Euro cup for many months. Due to the town’s close vicinity to Warsaw – just 22 kilometres – several teams vied to be accommodated here, but it was the Greeks who ultimately prevailed – because they had been the first to apply.

The town leaders deliberated for many months on how to present Legionowo to the Greeks from the best side. The local football venue, where the Greeks hold their training sessions, has received a new fence, modernised locker rooms, new turf and an improved access road.

But that’s not all. The decision was made to decorate the winners of the annual Legionowska Dycha [The Legionowo Ten] 10-kilometre race with laurel wreaths like in classical Greece. And even a Greek-language crash course was offered. “Kalimera”, smiles a passer-by when asked for “good day” in Greek.

Cultural shock

“Who knows if olives don’t eventually become our favourite snack”, the locals joke among themselves.

Greek flags fly throughout the town and there are signs in Greek too. “We’ve dressed ourselves up nicely for the Greeks, but the Greek fans don’t hang around here so we go the fan zone in Warsaw and integrate with them there”, says Andrzej Szeniawski, a Legionowo resident.

When he first went to the fan zone in front of the monumental Palace of Culture and Science with his little daughter, he experienced a cultural shock. “I saw Chinese people dressed in white-and-red costumes selling Polish football gadgets: scarves, T-shirts, caps. Some Turks approached them, dressed in our colours too, and had themselves photographed together”, he says. Another surprise was the sight of Czech fans displaying “Poland” scarves.

“It was then that I understood that for the Euro, all visitors have become Poles; they supported us when our team played. I decided to take a Russian flag to the Poland-Russia game, to fraternise with the Russians”, says Mr Szeniawski.

And he has another reflection too: Polish patriotism is no longer reserved for this or that social group. “Until now, our patriotism was perceived in rather blunt terms: if someone’s marching down the street holding the flag, it must be the rightwing opposition”, he explains.

“Gdańsk is so red with the Spanish”

“Attending the Independence Day parade on 11 November, I heard the skinheads chanting ‘Patriotism has to hurt!’ The Euro shows that it can also be enjoyed and displaying the flag and national colours has ceased to be cheesy”.

In the centre of attention has also been the town of Opalenica (halfway between Poznań and Nowy Tomyśl, population 10,000), selected for accommodation by the Portuguese team, with the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo. And although here, like in Legionowo, Portuguese fans are seldom to be seen, the mood and energy in town have changed.

The locals, on their own initiative, fly Portuguese flags on their homes besides Polish ones and wherever you look, there are signs saying “Opalenica welcomes the Portuguese team”.

“Gdańsk is so red with the Spanish”, “Poznań so green with the Irish”, community portal users enthused in a bragging contest about which city saw more international fans. After the matches, multiethnic parties continued long into the night. What have foreign fans learned about Poland? That we have good, quick and comfortable public transportation, a clear and comprehensible wayfinding system, great food and beautiful girls.

Breaking stereotypes

What have the Poles learned about themselves from their fan-zone party mates? That we speak good English, are great fans and know how to have good time, though we could improve our singing skills, possibly by learning from the Irish, who have come to be loved by us all.

For their class and ability to accept a defeat, their pride and joie de vivre, and, last but not least, for not being stingy with the money they have left in the pubs and restaurants. And also because they’ve promised to come again and recommend the country to their friends. Which is the best recommendation you can get.

Although the championship hasn’t been a sporting success for Poland, it won’t be an overstatement to say that Euro 2012 has transformed Poland and the Poles. And not even in terms of how the country’s image has improved, how much money we make on the event, or how great the civilisational leap Poland makes in the economy and infrastructure as a result.

The point is Euro 2012 has helped us to put to rest a number of national inferiority complexes and break some stereotypes, because we have suddenly seen ourselves as a nation not only hospitable and cheerful, united and strong in cheering on our team, but also amiably open to the colourful multiculturality that has settled in here and amid which we have spent the last couple of weeks.