As Cesc Fàbregas's winning penalty hit the inside of Rui Patrício's right-hand post and crept into the opposite corner of the goal, the back room of the bar in Grodzisk Wielkopolski let out a collective groan. There weren't just Portuguese voices letting out their disappointment at Portugal's exit from UEFA EURO 2012, but Poles and English too. The people of Opalenica – where Paulo Bento's squad had their training camp – and its surrounding towns took Portugal to their hearts.
When the squad arrived at their training complex just over three weeks ago, it seemed neither hosts or guests knew what to expect. There was a sense that the Cristiano Ronaldo show was arriving in town, as homemade banners tied to trees and lampposts welcoming the Real Madrid CF star on the approach highway to Opalenica testified, but Portugal proved to be so much more – on and off the pitch.
The daily training sessions at the team base involved local youngsters as helpers, and the open sessions conducted weekly in the mini-stadium drew packed crowds of enthusiastic Poles, from young autograph hunters to a pensioner whose command of the bagpipes enchanted Pepe and Raul Meireles.
The squad returned from Warsaw to work last Saturday after the win against the Czech Republic, and the players unveiled a banner in the colours of the Portuguese flag emblazoned with the words 'Dziekujemy Opalenicy!' ('Thank you, Opalenica!'). It was heartily applauded, and a local journalist thanked midfielder Custódio on behalf of his team in the last press conference before the team left for Donetsk for the semi-final.
"We didn't know much about Poland before we came here," said the SC Braga man by way of explanation. "But everyone's been very good to us." If Ronaldo remained the star attraction, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Nani and Meireles were also later singled out as local favourites.
The pleasant surroundings have informed a consistently upbeat mood in the Portugal camp. Players consistently told us of the "unity" in the dressing room, and the daily sessions and press conferences revealed a set of players happy in each other's company. Whether it was Rui Patrício being lightly teased and jostled for breaking a ball-juggling circle or Miguel Veloso collapsing in laughter at Nani's attempt to converse with a Spanish journalist in his native tongue, their work seemed like fun. It has been a pleasure to watch them on their journey.
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