Germany’s Mats Hummels admitted on Monday that he has been charmed by Northern Ireland’s exploits at Euro 2016, but he is determined to deny them a fairytale victory in Paris.
The two teams face off at Parc des Princes in their final Group C game on Tuesday, with world champions Germany requiring a point to secure a place in the last 16.
Hummels could find himself up against Conor Washington, who was working as a postman as recently as 2012, and the Borussia Dortmund centre-back said that he was familiar with the Queens Park Rangers striker’s background.
“I heard that story. I love stories like that,” he told Germany’s pre-match media conference.
“We know they live off the emotions and are supported by their fans. I think one-tenth of Northern Ireland is present here.
“It’s more difficult for us. We can’t transport eight million people here! But that just shows how much emotion there is.”
Another Northern Irish striker to have captured the imagination is Will Grigg, whose ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire!’ chant has become one of the soundtracks to the tournament despite the fact he is yet to play.
The chant, sung to the tune of the 1996 club anthem ‘Freed from Desire’ by Italian singer Gala, spawned a YouTube prank in which a group of Northern Irish fans supposedly called a fire station to report that Wigan Athletic striker Grigg was in flames.
An approving Hummels said: “I’ve heard about the firefighters’ call. I love that story.
“I’ll maybe try to give him my jersey. I don’t want them to score, but I’m a great fan of his.”
Asked if he could sing the song, Hummels replied: “I’m maybe the worst singer in this team, so I won’t do that.”
Having beaten Ukraine 2-0 in mid-week, Northern Ireland -- who represent a country with a population of only 1.8 million people -- are just a point behind Germany going into the game.
Michael O’Neill’s men need to win to secure one of the two automatic qualifying berths, but a draw or even a defeat could be enough to take them into the last 16 as one of the four best third-place teams.
Hummels conceded that he knew very little about Northern Irish football prior to the tournament, but he said that he and his team-mates would be fully briefed by the time kick-off comes around.
“We didn’t know that much about Northern Ireland, which is not a big surprise,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve played them before, but British teams are often similar. We played Scotland and the Republic of Ireland in the qualifiers.
“We saw how strong these teams can be -- mentally and physically strong, and passionate.
“We know they could get the confidence to beat us if we let them. We have to try to be the better team from the beginning so they don’t start believing they can win it.”