Warsaw stadium rallying point for Poland

A general view shows the Greek soccer team during their final practice session in Warsaw one day...

A general view shows the Greek soccer team during their final practice session in Warsaw one day ahead of the opening match of the Euro 2012 against Poland in Warsaw, June 7, 2012. (REUTERS/Pascal Lauener)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:14 PM ET

WARSAW - Thursday was a national holiday in Poland. It was the feast of Corpus Christi.

The faithful attended church and then began a second pilgrimage to what has become the newest icon in Warsaw.

It was a remarkable scene. On the banks of the Vistula River hundreds upon hundreds of people walked, rode or drove by the National Stadium, the location of Poland's first game at Euro 2012 Friday when it plays Greece.

They walked around the circular structure tucked among the verdant vegetation and idyllic setting as one would a nativity scene or the location where a divine appearance took place.

They took pictures, shot videos and rode bicycles around the structure time and time again. A couple fresh from their marriage ceremony were having pictures taken with the stadium serving as a backdrop. Parents put children on their shoulders so the youngsters could look over the fence at what has become a great source of pride for the Polish people.

It wouldn't have been a shock to see families spreading out blankets on the sidewalk in front of the stadium and breaking out a picnic lunch.

The stadium will be the site of some outstanding soccer. That is the bottom line for Euro organizers.

But it isn't the bottom line for Poland and its people. If it was only about soccer you wouldn't see hundreds of women among the spectators or teenagers who obviously have little interest in the game.

As much as it is about soccer, the National Stadium is a greater source of pride in Warsaw.

It hasn't come without conflict. Some believe the stadium is an eyesore that was built in a heritage area and is a symbol of development gone mad.

To most others, it is a source of pride, a symbol of the kind of investment that is slowly finding its way into the country since Solidarity brought the end of communism in 1989.

No one wants athletics to become a political statement, but travelling throughout Poland where the grey, bunker-like buildings representative of Soviet architectural ingenuity dominate, the stadium stands out like a welcoming beacon. It is a 58,000-seat structure with a retractable roof and the facade built in the red and white colours of Poland's flag.

A new stadium, growing excitement among the residents of Warsaw, a surge of nationalistic fervour provide fuel to the motor that makes home teams difficult to beat.

Poland is a country hungry to produce good soccer and to bring the Euro tournament to a level that tourists, media and even Poles themselves didn't believe the country could achieve, an exclamation mark to how far it has come.

"I am so proud when I enter this stadium," Polish team captain Yakub Blasczcykowski said. "I am so proud that we're able to build such a stadium. Honestly, I'm not very stressed. I think this going to be a good experience."

The stadium is something that wasn't even a dream 20 years ago. Now the national team dreams that this tournament and this stadium can be a springboard back to the glory days of Polish football, the magic of Gregor Lato, Zbigniew Boniek, Kaz Deyna, Wlodzimierz Smolek among others. It has been since 1986 when Poland hasn't threatened world powers since a third-place finish at the 1986 World Cup.

Blasczcykowski addresses the pressure his team faces.

"The whole country has great expectations and we are aware of this," he said. "But it will only motivate us to win. A player waits his entire career for such dreams as this. These are dreams that are coming true. The only thing is to help realize those dreams and make them last."

Blasczcykowski is inside talking about the hopes and dreams of a soccer player.

Outside hundreds of people continue to wander around the stadium, taking pictures and staring at the structure which for them has begun to represent the dreams of a nation.


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