As Roy Keane pointed out the other day, the violence which has cast such a dark cloud over these European Championships is actually confined, as ever, to the proverbial tiny minority of the hundreds of thousands of fans who have come from all over the continent, and beyond, to enjoy the football, the fun, and all the good things that France has to offer.
But even at a safe distance from Group B and the mayhem involving a hard core of Russian and English fans as well as local self-styled ‘ultras’, it’s impossible to entirely escape the trouble.
Having dinner in a restaurant opposite my hotel in Versailles earlier this week, I couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversation at an adjoining table of a trio of elderly Canadian ladies, one of whom took it upon herself to educate the others about the background to the ugly scenes they had been witnessing nightly on the television news.
“Europeans get very emotional about their soccer,” she explained, to nods and tut-tuts from her companions.
There are, of course, words other than emotional which come sooner to mind when you see that one of the Russian shock troopers had affixed a camera to his shaven head so he could record a first person frontline view of himself and his mates visiting destruction on anyone and everyone in their path as they rampaged through Marseilles.
But let’s just say that, even on our seen-it-all-before side of the fence, I don’t think there are too many of us exactly salivating at the prospect of an extended stay in the motherland for the World Cup in two years’ time. The story de jour even reached into our peaceful sanctuary hard by the chateau the other day, when a Belgian journalist assigned to the Irish beat ahead of today’s game in Bordeaux, approached one of our own with a loaded query. Here is a verbatim transcript of the exchange which ensued.
Belgian journo: “Would you please have some Irish hooligan stories for me?”
Irish journo (taken aback): “Er, not really, no. The Irish fans have a very good reputation. They don’t fight like the Russian and English fans.”
Belgian journo (excitedly): Fighting? Like boxing? Like this? (mimes throwing punches).
Irish journo: “Yeah. I mean, that’s what hooligans do, right?”
Belgian journo (in astonished tone): “Hooligans box?”
Irish journo: “Well, yeah. Of course.”
Belgian journo: “Oh, this is great!”
Irish journo: “Why is that great?”
Belgian journo: “Because he is your best, no? And he boxes as well.”
Irish journo (completely baffled): “Who does?”
Belgian journo: “Hooligans!”
Irish journo: “Hooligans? What? Like, violent people?”
Belgian journo: “No, no, no. Hooligans. Wesley Hooligans.”
Where would you get it, eh? Not even in the Abbey, I’ll wager.
Meanwhile, my regular readers — hello Brendan and Irene Blennerhasset in Youghal – seem to have been much taken with the candid admission in this space last week that we media types are probably the moaniest minnies going. But, while that’s undoubtedly true, I wouldn’t want to leave the public with the mistaken impression our moaning isn’t, on occasion, without its practical benefits.
Exhibit A: the drop off point for most media folk arriving at the Stade de France is a short, narrow street called Rue de Henri Delaunay, the man after whom the European Championship trophy is named.
(As an aside, I read somewhere recently the architect of the Euros was once refereeing a match when one of those rock-hard footballs of yesteryear hit him flush in the face, knocking out his two front teeth and, sacre bleu, causing him to swallow his whistle. Quite apart from being a splendidly sepia-tinted yarn, I reckon this gives a whole new meaning to the time-honoured jibe: “Blow it out your ass, ref.” But I digress…)
So, a couple of hours before kick off last Monday, there we were looking to make the short walk from the aforementioned Rue de Henri Delaunay along a perimeter path to the stadium’s official media entrance, where we would be scanned and searched and before being granted admittance.
Except that, on this occasion, a couple of heavily armed and armour-plated police men were standing in our way and, most palpably, not for moving.
These were gentlemen of the CRS, France’s famed and fearsome riot squad and, as far as they were concerned, it mattered not a jot that we’d just have to go back the way we’d come and make an entire circuit of the Stade de France if we wanted to get any closer to the media entrance which, from where we now stood with our disgruntlement audibly growing, was clearly visible.
A sympathetic steward, attempting to get clearance for us by contacting a higher up on his walkie-talkie, wasn’t holding out much hope.
“They are not normally standing here,” he explained, gesturing at the stony-faced cops, though of course we needed no explanation for the extra security. “And when they do come, everything changes. This is France.”
Maybe so, but it very quickly became apparent that not even the CRS had ever encountered anything quite like a hic of determined Irish hacks in full-on moan. And so it was that, after little more than three or four minutes of their being subjected to our ever shriller grumbling, just at the point where the maddening volume of our collective whinging reached a siren-like 11 on the moanometer, well, let me tell you, those boys simply folded like cheap deckchairs.
The next thing, the barrier was pulled back, and with visible relief on their faces, they were almost cheerily waving us on our way.
And, as we marched on, yes, I say, marched on - towards the media entrance, I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to belong to this plucky band of brothers. I may even have wept a little.
And then we all went in search of the media café so we could give out about the price and quality of the sandwiches.
This column began with talk of dark clouds and it would be un-Irish of me to end without a word about the literal ones which are also darkening our days out here.
The apocalyptic hail storm which disrupted Northern Ireland’s stirring victory over Ukraine promoted one colleague to remark: ‘Ulster says snow’. But, genuinely, the frequently brutal weather here at the Euros has long since ceased to be a laughing matter for those of us who travelled from our island on the edge of Europe in giddy anticipation of the warming rays of the French summer sun.
As I write this in Bordeaux, there’s deafeningly torrential rain once again hammering down on the roof of the media centre at the venue for today’s game, with the forecast for around kick-off promising more of the same – with maybe a thunderstorm or two thrown in for good measure.
Oh, for those balmy days in the Costa del Cork.
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