The sense of expectation is palpable now, the giddy feeling that anything can and probably will happen on the 10 green fields of France chosen to host this latest European Championships ubiquitous, but some old truths continue to hold true as France and Romania kick the tournament off at the Stade de France this evening.
German efficiency, as ever, is among them.
Lest we forget, the world champions had been surprisingly lethargic in the opening rounds of qualifying. Ireland and Poland helping themselves to four unexpected points against the ‘Mannschaft’ between games held in Gelsenkirchen and Warsaw, but it didn’t exactly derail their plans for France this summer.
Team manager Oliver Bierhoff, he of the golden goal in Euro ’96, has been the man responsible for all things logistics with Joachim Low’s side for years now and the rather splendid Hotel Ermitage overlooking the town of Evians-les-Bains, and in the shadow of the Alps, was chosen by him as their team base all of 12 months ago and with four rounds still to negotiate in Group F.
Compare that to England who didn’t drop a point in securing their berth from Group E and waited until September to opt for Chantilly. The Spanish chose Il-De-Re near La Rochelle three months later while the Italians chose to be oh so fashionably late by holding off until January before confirming that they would hole up in Grammont near Montpellier.
Even the Republic of Ireland, who had to squeeze in via the two-legged play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina, had their rooms booked in Versailles by then and yesterday’s open training session provided the first opportunity for the burgeoning media posse to run the rule over the facilities at Stade de Montbauron.
Home to FC Versailles, the ground has played host to the burgeoning talents of the young Thierry Henry and Hatem Ben Arfa, but it is more accustomed to witnessing considerably less gilded talents than that given the club’s status as a semi-professional side that competes in the seventh tier of French football.
A run-of-the-mill ground in these parts, it can still hold over 6,000 people who are separated from the surface by a standard athletics track. The first thought on arrival was that it made for the type of facility which most League of Ireland clubs would die for, though the pitch wasn’t always as pristine as yesterday.
According to locals, it was in a serious state of disrepair when Uefa chose it as a team base for the Euros. A significant sum of money, believed to be just short of €50,000, was invested in an upgrade and the FAI sent a groundsman out from Abbotstown two weeks ago to tend to the turf and ensure there would be no need to reach for references to Saipan before Monday’s opener.
Even the Germans can’t control the weather, however, and the floods that have afflicted much of the continent these past few weeks were such that the Stade de Montbauron disappeared under water for a spell only last week. One can only imagine the conversation when Roy Keane was told: “The good news is that the bibs and footballs have arrived …” Thankfully, the only danger yesterday was sunburn.
‘Everything is in good nick,” said Shay Given who is experiencing his third major finals. “The hotel is fantastic. We’ve had a good welcome from the locals, as you could see at training. We’re all happy. It’s not overly humid - it was hotter in Cork last week. It would be nice to play in this sort of climate, I don’t think the heat will be an issue.” Cabin fever might be.
Given spoke yesterday of the heavy armed presence that surrounded the squad since its arrival in France. Armed men patrolled training and journalists attempting to gain entry passed through four layers of security before being allowed that bit closer to the session which was eventually watched from some distance and inside a tightly designated area.
That aside, the town of Versailles looks ideal.
The distance between the hotel and training ground is minimal and there will be no repeat of the suffocating proximity of Sopot four years ago when the team’s digs were located at the apex of the town’s main street and within spitting distance of the partying thousands of fans who made the trip in support.
The Germans, again, have set the standards there.
Irish journalists covering the Republic of Ireland beat at Euro 2012 four years ago still talk in awed terms of the purpose-built media and training centre the Germans built amidst the wilderness of northern Poland. Mercedes-Benz cars flanked the main stage, hacks sipped coffee in a ‘McD’ Café and players and journalists mixed freely and contentedly.
Two years later and they outdid themselves by constructing a purpose-built training facility and resort for themselves in a remote part of Brazil. Low and his players spoke of the marginal gains it afforded them. “This village has been a major factor in building up the special team spirit in the group today,” said the defender Benedikt Höwedes at the time.
Ireland won’t lack for spirit. Signs are on yesterday’s evidence that they won’t lack for anything else either.
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