Bonjour! France is currently hosting a major football tournament: the European Championships. I had been to the previous two editions (Austria/Switzerland in 2008 and Ukraine/Poland in 2012) and was determined to experience this one as it might be the last EURO I experience for a while.
|At France vs Sweden in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2012|
|In the Vienna fan zone watching Austria vs Germany in 2008|
Another reason for my desperation to go was the fact that my beloved Wales were in the tournament – a first qualification for a major football finals since 1958. Seeing that Wales were likely to qualify for the tournament, I entered the ticket lottery in the summer of 2015, choosing the industrial town of Lens as I felt more likely to get a ticket there than Paris, which was where we would have to base ourselves in order to return to Prague in time for work on Monday.
|The times of matches in Paris meant that this was our only view of a football in the capital|
|The northern town of Lens, which hosted some EURO 2016 matches including Wales vs England|
I was informed in July that I had successfully secured two tickets for the match in Lens on Saturday, June 11. At this point, qualification was still going on, with the draw being made in early December. The draw was made and I found that WALES were playing on this very day…in Bordeaux (almost 800km from Lens). ENGLAND were also playing on this day…in Marseille (almost 1000km from Lens). With hindsight, I’m quite glad I wasn’t near France’s second city, what with all the shenanigans that occurred there.
|Watching England vs Russia from the safety and beauty of the Paris fan zone|
|Pictures from a UK newspaper of the violence and thuggery in Marseille|
The game we had tickets for was…ALBANIA v SWITZERLAND!! A classic, non? It would have been brilliant to watch Wales but the chances of that were very slim. More than anything, I wanted to experience the positivity and fun of being at a major football tournament once more. People from a variety of countries joining together (mostly happily) for a festival of football.
|One of us would have had a much larger grin if Wales were playing but it was still an amazing experience|
|EURO 2016: a time for Europe to bond?|
Besides, this matchup had plenty of intriguing subplots. Like Wales, this was Albania’s first time in a EURO finals. Unlike Wales, much of Albania’s squad were born or raised in…Switzerland. What’s more, many of Switzerland’s team were born in Kosovo or…Albania. There are actually two brothers, one of whom plays for Switzerland with the other representing…yes…Albania.
|Albania vs Switzerland in Lens|
|An Albanian fan vents his feelings towards certain Swiss players with Albanian or Kosovan ethnicity|
Our first glimpse of football fever was on the train from Charles de Gaulle airport into the centre of Paris on the Friday night. The train passes through an area called Saint-Denis, where the country’s national stadium was. We passed through about 45 minutes after France had played the opening match of the tournament there against Romania. The train was soon packed with tricolours, blue shirts…and cowboy hats, naturally. France had won late; the mood was jubilant.
|A crowded but happy train|
|The weekend papers in France were full of praise for their match-winner, Dimitri Payet|
The following morning, we rented a car (which we called Amelie) and zipped 200k up the A1 towards Lens. Well, aside from the moment when we took a wrong turn off the motorway… We found ourselves often being overtaken by cars with red flags emblazoned with a two-headed eagle: the Albanian flag. Their fans were out in force for their country’s big moment.
|The Albanian flag being proudly worn|
The atmosphere in the town was loud in a positive way – a stark contrast to the hooliganism and ugliness of Marseille. Wacky clothing was commonplace. Chanting was obligatory.
|A Swiss suit with a difference|
|Stereotypes are a key feature of many football costumes|
One of Albania’s main chants was their country’s name in Albanian: Shqipëri. When shouting by large, hairy men, it sounded like ‘SHEEPY’. It was this reason, as well as supporting the underdog, that we cheered for Albania during the match.
|Albanian fans imploring the crowd to chant|
As for the game itself, it seemed like the poor Albanian fans had the wind knocked out of them when the Swiss scored after a mere five minutes. Their frustrations mounted when their captain inexplicably decided to foul a Swiss attacker to collect a deserved second yellow card.
|Switzerland celebrate Fabian Schar giving them the lead after five minutes|
|The referee is about to give Albania's captain, Lorik Cana, a second yellow card|
The Swiss weren’t playing well however, giving Albania hope of a momentous comeback. They should have equalised on a couple of occasions, with their goalkeeper arguably being the best player on the pitch. Switzerland clung on to win 1-0, condemning Albania to defeat in their historic first appearance.
|Switzerland defending in the second half|
|The Albanian fans were particularly loud in the second half, urging their team on|
We were caught in a furious thunderstorm on the way back to Paris, with the wipers rendered obsolete at one point by the ferocity of the driving rain. In combination with the fact that we couldn’t find a petrol station for ages in Paris, we missed the Wales game. When driving near the Arc de Triomphe, I spied a TV screen which had Gareth Bale celebrating wildly. WE WON! My scream was understandably not appreciated by Hannah, who was scouring the streets for petrol at this time.
|After the rain and before my deafening roar: a period of happiness!|
Having said adieu to Amelie, we walked across the beautiful streets of Paris to the city’s main monument, where giant screens were showing football for fans without tickets. Where better to watch a match than under the Eiffel Tower with the sun setting behind it?
|Arc de Triomphe|
|The Paris fan zone - the largest screen was directly under the Eiffel Tower but we settled on a patch of turf close by|
Obviously France has had its fair share of problems over the last couple of years. The piles of rubbish on the streets of Paris was an indication that some things haven’t been resolved; the intensive security measures undertaken in order to enter the fan zone under the Eiffel Tower suggested that they are trying their best to get other things right. I’ve never been subjected to a body search as intrusive as that in my life. There was no safer place to be.
|Bin men, as with many workers, were on strike when we arrived in Paris|
|Being ushered to the first security cordon near the Eiffel Tower - obviously photos of the security process were a no-no|
I’m writing this a few weeks after the match took place. At the time of writing, Wales are still in the tournament, riding a wave of positive energy both from home and abroad. I’m glad we were able to experience a little part of EURO 2016 in person, enjoying the delights of a country which is currently searching for a good news story. So far, this tournament has been it.
Love you all