Euro 2016: Republic of Ireland v Italy
Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille
“The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFA’s attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well.”
It is said that the Irish are ‘lucky’. Licking their wounds from a Bordeaux-based Belgian beating, their army of fans traversed the country to Lille more in hope than expectation. That Italy had already won the group and were able to field the reserves could be classed as lucky but the performance of the team, whose intensity was only matched by the delirium in the stands, was anything but. Ireland overcame their deficiencies in technical ability through hunger, persistence and playing to their strengths. It will be a night long remembered by everybody, including some non-Irish like me, who was there and millions who were not.
How did you get a ticket?
At every stage of the ticket sale process, I dutifully applied for tickets. Tickets for games in Lille and Lens (both less than 2 hours drive from my house), then individual matches, ticking the ‘I’m willing to pay the next category up’ box but to no avail. I have never been awarded a ticket in a UEFA lottery. Maybe I should change my email address to ‘email@example.com’ and see if that works? A guy I met in a pub next to the stadium said he won his ticket in a raffle. It’s an interesting raffle prize – kind of obliges you to take time off work, organise flights and hotels etc.
However, in this instance, I simply refreshed the ticket portal a few days beforehand and found that two tickets were available for the match, so I bought one. All official, easily picked up at the stadium (although be sure to take your passport/National ID card along). Parking at the stadium can also be booked although at 15€, I did feel a little bit stung. I was searched as I collected my ticket to be welcomed by an army of bored staff and volunteers. This was the first of three searches undergone pre-match.
Pre-Match – Around the Stadium
The area around the stadium has clearly evolved to cater to a different clientele. Rather depressingly, lots of nice bars with interesting wine lists and trappist beers were only selling sponsored products – Carlsberg and Coca-Cola products. Coke has even bought naming rights to the WIFI in the area! Although an exercise in extreme global capitalism, this paradoxically produces the choice and homogeneity one would expect in a communist state.
One guy actually asked the barman for a half-pint of Grimbergen – very common in France – and was told he could only be sold pints of Carlsberg. He attributed this to this arrival of the Irish but it seemed more like an imposition from The Man.
The atmosphere around these bars in the concourse adjacent to the stadium is how I remember International Tournament Football (as well as distantly, being Scottish) – not the images Lille town centre had experiences the week before and Marseille a few days previously. I wish more of this made the news.
It was very warm when the sun peeked out from between the clouds, causing the Irish boys to seek shade in the bars while the Italians milled around the terrace in what was more people reverting to stereotype than any kind of segregation. Another point of note was the number of fans wearing other teams outfits – Portuguese, Belgian, German fans were numerous enough to be noticed.
Whilst watching the Hungary v Portugal match on TV in a bar, these two characters at the bar were commenting on the aesthetic ‘quality’ of the bar staff. This led to them starting a rendition of “French girls on fire; Irish girls are terrified.” Had you seen these two mammies boys at the bar, it would’ve only added to the humour of the situation. They were two forty-something tubby little ginger hobbits from Limerick, both called Eoin. I’m not making this up!
Anyway, just before the 6pm games finished, I made my way to enter the stadium. There was a queue for checking the tickets (in addition to a barcode reader which checked them again), a queue to be patted down and another guy who checked your bags etc. This whole process did take around twenty minutes although nobody minds because of the purpose it serves.
Pre-match – In The Stadium
Cue: UEFA Grumbling
Once through the security checks, you are presented with the great corporate monoculture. Selling exclusively non-alcoholic beer is just lame. I understand the reasons why but when you can drink for 12 hours before the game should you really want to, I don’t think banning beer in the stadium is the way to go. It makes fans binge beforehand and wait until the last minute before entering the stadium, causing delays. It’s excessive drinking in a short space of time that is problematic, not beer at football matches.
Anyway, you would be relieved of six euros for a pint of pretend beer, in addition to 6.50€ for merguez and some reheated chips. Actually, LOSC have a reasonable buvette for snacks and drinks and generally sell better than this.
Having advanced past this to my rather good seat, I was overcome by the damp smell in the stadium. It reminded me of when I used to wash my rugby kit and not dry it for a few days. However, this was just ‘in the air’ as opposed to emanating from a poorly-laundered fan in the vicinity. I was intrigued to see the roof closed (a step taken to prevent the pitch becoming even heavier) but then the sprinklers turned on. I’m no horticulturist but this seems counterintuitive. The stadium was also very warm with the roof shut.
One part of the pre-match ritual I usually enjoy is the announcement of the teams, where the fans reply with the player’s surname. However, doing this a full hour before the match when the stadium is only about quarter full is just rubbish. It’d be like Blur sound checking with Song 2 and then not playing it during the set. This was followed by UEFA Karaoke, where the ‘Fields of Anthenry’ was played at a pedestrian pace and the fans that had arrived couldn’t sing it that slowly.
All this Superbowlification of football is not required, nor is it desirable. It all seemed to be aimed at people who don’t go to football matches, dreamt up by a marketing consultant who only goes to the football for the prawn sandwiches. The organic atmosphere created by the fans was fabulous and this ‘forced fun’ reminded me of a student Nursery Teacher who tries to teach one-year olds Frère Jacques, despite the fact half of them can’t speak, and carries on regardless of the feedback received.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFAs attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well. Ireland don’t have many songs, and Italy have even less, but they do belt them out with gusto and joy.
Ireland’s selection, Shane Long excepted, seemed to have been made on the basis of height: Duffy, Keogh, Murphy et al were not picked because of their passing ability. However, Ireland’s challenge would be to get the best out of these players in a way that they failed to do against Belgium. Italy really did field a reserve XI and, if nothing else, that was cause for a little optimism. However, I don’t think even the most optimistic fan would have expected such a spirited, intense and accomplished performance.
The first half was one of frustration for Ireland. Despite completely dominating the match, they didn’t have many clear cut chances. Again, Italy’s shape forced them into some of the ‘negative-U’ passing that Belgium did in their first match. However, Ireland generally don’t have 50 pass build ups, meaning that their directness kept Italy on their toes. Indeed, Italy had James McClean off of his toes and onto the ground with a very clumsy-looking challenge that the referee deemed to be acceptable. Ireland had been unlucky, but had lacked that bit of guile or class to unlock Italy.
Some of the Italian players should have been out to impress their coach but few will have done. Zaza was a no-no, Thiago Motta barely broke sweat and Barzagli and Ogbonna seemed intent on racing to the first yellow card.
The introduction of Hoolahan and McGeady had the feel of desperation about it but it did change things a little. Hoolahan has a glorious chance to score when everyone seemed to think play had stopped, but shot straight at Sirigu. McGeady did what he does, dribble nicely then play an ineffective cross or off-target shot. However, when the breakthrough finally came, even the Italians applauded and agreed that it was deserved. Robbie Brady had spent the whole second half moaning at Ward for not hitting him early with throw-ins and hadn’t done much else but became the hero after 84 minutes when he unconvincingly headed past an off-balance Sirigu.
Lille had exploded into shouts of joy, relief and disbelief. Now all they had to do was hold on. Despite substitute Insigne’s wasp-like movement in Ireland’s half, he was unable to sting and ended up embodying everything that is annoying about a Vespa. In injury time, a whistle was blown and Irish substitutes and coaching staff ran on to the pitch, only to realise it was a free kick. D’oh! However, there was no way they were going to give up what they had fought so hard for all night. When the final whistle was finally blown, the Irish fans descended into delirium.
As much as I was enjoying the celebrations, I did have work the following morning and had to get back to the car, get out of Lille and get home. This was easier said than done. All the stairs were blocked with dancing Irish. I had my sweaty head kissed twice by total strangers, before finally leaving the party early.
Just outside the ground, the party was kicking off and was set to extend well into the wee hours. I heard one guy on his phone just outside the stadium saying ‘look, I’ll book the hotel, you get train tickets and we’ll come up with some bullshit story for the wives and work’. I’d suggest he wasn’t the only one having these thoughts. Maybe these are the Irish girls Eoin said were terrified.
Whether or not they’ll get past the French seems irrelevant – Ireland have already somehow won. Looking on as a lonely Scot, it occurred to me that all three teams who qualified from Scotland’s group are in the last 16: Germany, Poland and Ireland. Lyon will be the next city whose pubs will be in profit. I’m looking forward to a few days excitement, with O’Neill being diplomatic and Roy Keane saying how Pogba wasn’t fit to clean his boots etc.