The long wait ends for Poland tomorrow. After two years of friendly matches, Europe will finally see what Franciszek Smuda's team are made of when the co-hosts get UEFA EURO 2012 under way in the opening match against Group A rivals Greece in Warsaw.
It will be the first of 31 games over 24 days and Smuda is hoping it will herald a month to remember for Polish football. "The atmosphere is really becoming better and better," he explained. "We can see that when we go to training sessions, we can see the support on the streets, people cheering and waving – it's great. I hope it will continue until the very end of the tournament."
That would mean Poland had delivered as a host nation, but Smuda's remit is for its footballers to deliver on the field. The Poles have won just three matches at a major tournament in 30 years and exited the EURO early four years ago. Smuda is nonetheless confident that the group of players he has assembled since replacing Leo Beenhakker in late 2009 will not let him down.
"Am I going to sleep well tonight? Yes, I surely will," he said. "Just before very important matches I have trouble sleeping, but this team has convinced me that I can rely on them; they have convinced me in every way during the last two and a half years. I just hope that together we will achieve what we desire."
Poland are unbeaten in six matches – winning five – and Smuda is expected to field the same XI that collected recent victories against Slovakia and Andorra. When it comes to the opening match, though, history is not exactly on the hosts' side.
Switzerland in 2008 and Portugal in 2004 both lost the tournament curtain-raiser, and only twice since 1984 have the hosts begun with a victory. As Smuda noted, the record books also suggest that a cagey encounter awaits. "These first matches often produce draws," he said, admitting he would be reluctant to chase three points in the closing changes if the teams were level. "If we get a draw, it means we're still in the game."
Both teams' defences point to a close contest as well. Poland have kept five straight clean sheets while Greece's excellence at the back was underlined by a record of five goals conceded in ten qualifying matches. "The Greeks are perfect in defence," said Smuda. "It will be a great challenge to get through them."
Greece coach Fernando Santos, however, was keen to stress that there is more to his team than just a rigorous rearguard. "I think defence has been key to the success of this team, but attack and defence are equally important," he said, adding: "If we could only defend we wouldn't be here."
This is Santos's first major tournament since replacing Otto Rehhagel, the man who led Greece to UEFA EURO 2004 glory, and he conceded that the former European champions remain a pragmatic team. "It's quite reasonable to say that, but we know our qualities," he commented, and those qualities include, as with Rehhagel's side, a strong threat from the set pieces of Giorgos Karagounis and Sotiris Ninis.
Where they hold an edge over Poland, one of the competition's youngest sides, is in experience. Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis both played when Greece beat hosts Portugal in the opening match at UEFA EURO 2004 – Karagounis notching the first goal in a 2-1 win – and such experience will be vital tomorrow.
The National Stadium is wrapped in a red-and-white mesh on the outside, and inside it will be a sea of the same colours. Expectations are high, with Smuda noting that his team are now being hailed by the local media as a "team for the 21st century". Their future starts now, though. Can they deliver or will Greece tear up the hosts' script once more?
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