Slow death in the afternoon

FRANCE v Romania. Oh dear. Let’s blame it on the weather, shall we?

For the first time this week blue skies and soaring temperatures arrived in Switzerland and the shock must have been too great for the footballers of France and Romania who staggered their way through a 0-0 snooze-fest in the Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich. By the end, even the trumpeting sun had wearied of the game, as huge thunder clouds massed over the departing fans.

The colourful Romanian fans were still singing, however, clearly viewing the draw as something to celebrate and apparently unconcerned about their team’s shameful lack of ambition. Much admiration had been expressed in advance for their talisman Adrian Mutu, after he chose to stay with the camp despite the death of his grandmother in Romania. But so stultifying was the fare on offer last night that watching Irish eyes found themselves distracted by the mean notion that the Romanian FA should check out that the old lady really is no longer with us. Just in case, like.

If the Romanians felt that their underdog status merited hailing this bore draw as some kind of triumph, the same was clearly not the case for their opponents. A crescendo of shrill whistles from the French end of the ground greeted the outcome, after manager Raymond Domenech had seen his old soldiers and young guns fail to spark.

Starting without the injured Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, Domenech had looked to the highly-touted Karim Benzema to partner Nicolas Anelka up front, with Jeremy Toulalan deputising for Vieria in the middle. Toulalan, a solid defensive midfielder, emerged with some credit but neither young Benzema nor his strike partner The Incredible Sulk were able to contribute much to the faltering French cause. Benzema was later replaced by a contemporary, Samir Nasri but, again, the Marseille tyro failed to live up to his extravagant billing.

In the end, only the ageless Claude Makelele and the tireless Frank Ribery really shone for a hugely disappointing French side whose only consolation may be that they are traditionally slow starters on the big stage. I mean, sure this is the Group of Death, but if the opening game had been any more lifeless, it would have required an autopsy.

And so we were reduced to musing about our surroundings. Like so many of the designated stadia in this tournament, what the Letzigrund boasts in style, it loses in capacity. 30,000 can be accommodated here, the same as in six other grounds being used for Euro 2008. Only the 40,000-capacity St Jacob-Park in Basle and the 50,000-seater Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna – where the final will be held – buck the trend. It all means that supply has far exceeded demand at Euro 2008, even though UEFA increased the number of tickets available to genuine fans, at the expense of the corporate sector.

It’s been a bit of a scrum for the media too. On the frankly loopy logic that simply because Ireland are not involved, Irish journalists should cede priority to those representing competing nations – and this after already snubbing Dustin - we are not always guaranteed access to games at the first time of asking. However, there is a fallback, the much-loved ‘waiting list’, which involves a baying horde of hacks converging on the ticket desk an hour before kick-off in the often vain hope that they will pick up a no-show. Needless to say, the experience of hearing your name called out by a hard-pressed UEFA official is an exquisite thrill for any hack, even if foreign tongues can occasionally mangle one’s moniker. Thus, in Zurich last night, it took me a moment to register that it was indeed myself who was meant to answer to the quadruple-barrelled cry of ‘Trish Examiner Lime Makee’.

“Please,” I quipped good-naturedly, “just call me Trish.”

Meanwhile, over in Berne, the official Irish presence at this tournament was being felt for the first time as Giovanni Trapattoni’s assistant Marco Tardelli maintained a watching brief at last night’s Italy-Holland game.

The Group of Death may have dominated international coverage last night, but, here in Switzerland, they’re still struggling to come to terms with the double-whammy of the national team’s defeat by the Czech Republic and Roger Federer’s loss to Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open.

The front page of yesterday’s ‘24 Hours’ newspaper was dominated by a split-screen image of Alexander Frei in tears and Federer disconsolately wiping the sweat from his brow, beneath a headline which read ‘The Gods Of Sport Turn Their Back On The Swiss’. Well, true of the football team, perhaps, who can count themselves unlucky not to have picked up at least a point in their opening game, but hardly applicable, surely, in the case of Federer, whose own feet of clay were ruthlessly exposed by a prodigious feat on clay.

In the normal world, a problem shared may be a problem solved, but that’s not the case for the Swiss and their tournament co-hosts Austria. Written off by many before a ball had been kicked, the Austrians looked set to live down to all expectations by going down 1-0 to Croatia.

One match in, and both the co-hosts are staring down the barrel of a gun. Their conjoined fate may not matter much to neutrals viewing from the comfort of their own homes across the continent. But for the well-being of the tournament as it is experienced here on the ground, it won’t be just the natives who will be hoping that Austrians and the Swiss can somehow turn this around.


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