Euro 2016 is a made-for-television event. It’s extremely obvious, from the way the matches are scheduled (one hour apart, enough for post-match interviews, a preview of the upcoming match, and three or four ad-breaks) to the structure of the tournament, which has been designed to prevent any of the big teams meeting each other before at least the quarter-finals.
It is even more obvious if, like me, you are one of the hundreds of thousands of fans who have descended on France to follow their team. Three quarters of you are told to get to the stadium early so you can be “part of the show”, a euphemism for the fact that half-empty stands look bad on TV. Once in the stadium, you are subjected to a variety of corny pre-match ceremonies designed to get the crowd pumped up because heaven forbid they be left to create an atmosphere on their own. You might even notice that the fancy electronic advertising boards surrounding the pitch are only placed on three sides of the pitch; the stand containing the television cameras, the side that won’t be broadcast, merely gets plywood signs advertising Azeri energy and Chinese televisions.
Yet, despite all of this, the tournament has managed to be a living, breathing thing, populated by fans from every corner of Europe, bringing their own unique flavour to the tournament. Be the bright yellow of the Swedes, the humour of the Irish, the sheer joy of the Welsh and the Icelandic, the passion of the Italians and the Spanish, and even the expectancy of the French hosts.
I have not directly encountered any of those nations, but the Northern Irish fans I have been travelling with have been a delight, bringing a ferocious loudness and desire to get behind their team. They also had a strong desire to enjoy this party while it lasts whilst they were still contenders, knowing that there might not necessarily be another one for a while. This has meant a complete absence of violence or destructiveness; it was extremely bizarre to be reading about the chaos in Marseille while milling around Nice, where Northern Irish and Polish fans were swapping scarves, taking pictures, and even teaming up to protect each other when local Ultras arrived and attempted to cause trouble. The magnificent response of the Green and White Army to the tragic death of one of their number should also be noted in the absence of a minute’s silence but rather united in a minute’s applause during the Ukraine match, followed by chants of “Darren Rodgers, he’s one of our own.” The tribute felt meaningful and I sincerely hope it was appreciated.
Back home, it seems that the news has largely been covering what has been happening off the pitch. However, from my experience, the apparent rise in hooligan activity at these Euros is not a single problem but a mixture of several different ones. The fact that this is the first tournament in western Europe that England has qualified for since 2006 may have encouraged a different demographic of supporters to make the trip. Some, however, are extremely avoidable; the French police have veered between being too disengaged and too heavy-handed and have done little to monitor their own hooligans. UEFA have not taken a pro-active enough role in helping to organise the crowds outside the stadiums. The Russian authorities have completely failed to condemn hooliganism, with some in their hierarchy seemingly condoning it, and the impasse between the Croatian fans and their unimaginably corrupt football association should have been anticipated and dealt with. These lessons, we can only hope, have begun to be learnt.
The security of Euro 2016 was always going to be at the forefront of many minds after the events in Paris and Brussels in the last year. However, it has been relatively unobtrusive, with metal detectors mandatory at stadiums and fanzones, and police with semi-automatic rifles on regular patrol. Despite the security apparatus, it has not affected the atmosphere at all – fans are perfectly happy to go through the procedures in order to get on with the business of cheering their team on.
Meanwhile, there has actually been some football played. Whilst the matches have been relatively low-scoring and team performances have been less than flawless (although the 2014 World Cup group stages may have spoiled us in that respect), there quality has been on show throughout. The group stage game between Belgium and Italy was a particular highlight featuring a typically Italian tactical masterclass, with the Juventus defensive spine magnificent who brilliantly frustrated Belgium’s incoherent team of superstars who, despite an abundance of opportunities, could not breach the Italian backline. There have also been some fantastic goals scored: Bale’s against Slovakia, McAuley’s against Ukraine, Modric’s against Turkey, Payet’s and Mehmedi’s against Romania, and Hamsik’s against Russia.
The knockout stages promise even more excitement, with the presence of some unexpected names including Wales and Poland who are capable of shocking any of the big boys. The third round of group matches also guarantees drama, as there will be no dead rubbers and most teams will be in a must-win situation. We will also almost certainly have the odd spectacle of fans of third-placed teams in earlier groups forming alliances with teams in later groups, as they will need certain permutations of results in order to qualify. Regardless of the inevitable mathematical complexity, the tournament will surely only get better from here.
As a fan, this tournament has been a delight, with welcoming locals in fantastic cities and extremely good transport infrastructure to help fans travel around both within and between them. I feel like I have seen the best of Europe, in terms of hospitality and friendliness, whether it has been from the Albanian guys I took a group photo of in a bar in Nice, to the French teenagers who learnt the Northern Irish chants while on the Lyon metro. Despite the scare stories and the security measures, the whole event has still been a friendly festival of football. I hope that the next few, more controversial matches have just as much charm.