At five o’clock tomorrow evening, much of Northern Ireland will come to a standstill in a way that perhaps we haven’t done in 30 years, since the summer of 1986.
That was the last time ‘our wee country’, or the Green and White Army, reached the finals of a major football tournament.
Thousands of Northern Ireland fans, many without an actual match ticket, are descending on Nice, venue for our opening Euro 2016 game against Poland. There are few of us who don’t know someone who will be enjoying what is sure to be a carnival atmosphere in southern France.
Many thousands will also be watching the game on a big screen at a specially created ‘fan-zone’ in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter (bring your umbrellas!).
Pubs around the Province will be crammed to capacity and families will be gathered around their television screens and cheering on Michael O’Neill’s boys.
Soccer is much maligned, especially in the modern era when footballers’ pockets are lined with almost obscene amounts of money and the loyalty of players and managers is questioned on a weekly basis.
But there is also something special about the ‘beautiful game’, something to treasure, it can capture the imagination and arouse passion more than any other sport.
In the 30 years since Billy Bingham’s team lost two of three World Cup group games in Mexico, the tournament when the controversial Diego Maradona was at his majestic peak, Northern Ireland have often been in the footballing doldrums.
We have waited so long for this moment. Now that our boys are in France and the tournament is upon us, the pressure is off. The team, who have gone an incredible 12 matches without defeat, can go out and enjoy themselves. Watch out Poland, watch out Ukraine. And yes, watch out mighty Germany!