It was only 6.30am last Monday when one Northern Ireland fan, still very much the worse for wear after a night that may not have ended, spotted a couple of guys from south of the border wearing their different shades of green and felt the urge to cover the length of the train station concourse in Nice in less time than an Olympic sprinter to have his say, writes Brendan O’Brien.
“Sweden till I die, I’m Sweden till I die…”
Not the most original of barbs by any stretch of even his non-existent, alcohol befuddled imagination but, as far as turns of speed go, it was infinitely more impressive than anything his rather pedestrian team had managed against the Poles in their opening game the night before.
Ten out of ten for effort, and all that.
Duly impressed with himself, our hero turned around with a goofy grin, plonked his half-empty bottle of beer down on the lid of the grand piano that just happened to be there beside him — this is France, after all — and proceeded to tinkle the ivories in an astonishingly delicate and expert manner, so much so that even the armed cops standing beside him smiled in approval.
It was just one surreal moment in a competition that will not lack for them away from the pitch. Major tournaments never do.
We may remember them collectively for the great goals and dramas between the lines, but it is what occurs when the players are not performing that stitches a tournament’s narrative together, and this one has been hijacked by too many events of a thuggish nature.
Most people just won’t remember it like that. For most of us in France, it will be an experience peppered with people like Piano Man, the pair of Irish and Swedish fans who danced off so comically in a video which went viral and days playing train strike roulette as we traverse this magnificent but maddening country.
So, though the violence in Marseille last week, and in the north more recently, has cast a shadow over the event at large, the majority of cities and supporters simply can’t relate to the madness unleashed by ‘the few’. It is anathema to the collective spirit which refuses to be parked as the event drives on towards a second week.
Local thugs targeted Northern Ireland and Poland fans in Nice last Saturday night, but the atmosphere along the promenade the next afternoon was idyllic as both sets of supporters ate, drank and joshed freely.
The local paper on Monday morning led with a fan from each country gripping one another in nothing more threatening than a bear hug.
The tragic death of young Darren Rodgers, who fell eight metres from the Promenade Anglais in Nice where so many thousands had congregated for the weekend, has been the bleakest shadow to pass over the Euros thus far, though the tribute paid by fans of the Republic at the Swedish game was genuinely moving.
“Stand up for the Ulsterman,” had been sung in similar circumstances before.
Rugby supporters at the RDS and Thomond Park, and thousands more at other rugby venues across Ireland and the UK, belted it out in solidarity the weekend after the passing of Ulster player Nevin Spence in September of 2012.
The latest rendition, given the historic relationship between soccer fans north and south, was no less powerful. The click-bait trail of Irish fans changing tyres, picking up their own rubbish and serenading locals when they appear on their balconies can become a bit tiresome and smacks of a desperate need for some manner of approval as a nation, but the tournament would be infinitely better, safer and more fun if everyone approached it in the same manner.
Without the videos, maybe.
It’s early days yet, but the success of satellite channel beIN Sports in winning the bulk of the TV rights for the tournament hasn’t made it easy to actually track the tournament’s developing vibe here on the ground.
You can walk around the town of Versailles, where Ireland are based, on a nightly basis and have a job to find bars or restaurants that are showing non-French games.
It was different on Wednesday night — the terrestrial station TF1 is screening the French games — when the roars greeting Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet’s goals against Albania could be heard in every street but, with less than three million subscriptions to beIN, this is a tournament that seems to be flying over the head of the average citizen.
All told, only 22 of the 51 games are being broadcast on free-to-air TV here and very few have come in the group stage. Spain is similar. Twenty-three matches, among them those featuring ‘La Roja’, will be freely available to the nation there, but it was last month before any sort of deal was brokered.
Until then, there was the very real prospect of over 46 million Spaniards having no access to the mega-event unfolding over their northern border and, though the price tag might have had something to do with that, it seems that TV companies just didn’t feel the gig was enough of a ratings puller.
That’s astonishing, but it certainly lends some perspective to our own complaints about Eamon Dunphy’s outlandishness or the proliferation of ads on TV3.
As for those of us over here, it is on to Bordeaux for that date with the Belgians and a few days spent traipsing around the bars of the city looking for somewhere that might be showing the likes of Croatia v Czech Republic.
As excuses for a pint go, it isn’t the worst.
Email: brendan. firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Good point? Bad point? How can Ireland capitalise on their draw against Sweden and who should start against Belgium?
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