WROCLAW, Poland -- How big is Poland's final group game here on Saturday against the Czech Republic (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN/3/Deportes)? Let's just say that Poland knows it has to win to advance to the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, and it will have a stadium full of support on a historic day for Polish soccer.
"This is probably the biggest game in the past 30 years for the Polish national team," says Kuba Krzyzostaniak, a 24-year-old Polish-American soccer expert who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in Poznan. (He's on Twitter under the handle @KubaLech.) "The old Polish cliché is that the third group match is always about going home and saving face. Most Polish fans have never experienced anything like this before in Polish soccer."
A golden generation of Polish players reached the semifinals of the 1982 World Cup, but results in big tournaments have been disappointing over the last three decades. Co-hosting Euro 2012 provides an opportunity to make history, and Poles everywhere are confident that their team can bounce the Czechs. "I spent a month recently in the Czech Republic," says Krzyzostaniak, "and I don't think they're that strong. In almost every position we're better than them."
"This is definitely the most important game of my career, and for all of our team," Polish midfielder Eugen Polanski said here on Friday. "We've had five weeks of preparation, and we want to give everything. If we do that, we'll definitely win."
I've only been in Poland for a week, but it's impossible not to like this country. I love learning how to pronounce Polish words that look more like unplayable Scrabble racks. (The city where we're located now is pronounced "Vrotz-wawv," for example.) I love the hearty Polish meals that leave you full for hours. I love the way Polish strangers try to help you with directions, and I love their efforts to practice English on all their visitors from abroad.
I love learning more about some of my favorite Poles, from the legendary labor leader Lech Walesa to the filmmaker Krzysztof Kislowski to one of my journalism heroes, Ryszard Kapuscinski And I love bantering with Chris Kurylowicz, the Polish fixer/driver for our Fox Soccer crew who has been driving us all over the country, from his Warsaw house to Gdansk in the north and Wroclaw in the south.
"Very unhappy. We're upset at Monaco, too."
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I'll admit it: As a neutral I'd like to see Poland win here tomorrow. There's nothing like the infectious energy of a host country making a tournament run, and the Polish team won my respect with the way it came back to tie Russia the other day.
A giant national party is only 90 minutes away.