Saturday, June 25, 2016

Iceland for the Win: Euro 2016

We knew from the outset of planning this year of travel that we wanted to spend a good chunk of time in France towards the end of our year. We also knew that the Euro Cup started in June. How could we not go to one game. We will never be this close again.

Getting tickets

The hunt for tickets began. However, thinking about getting tickets, and getting tickets are two very different things - especially as a Canadian who doesn't belong to any team's club. As far as I can tell, if you belong to the club, you can get tickets in the uber fan zone of the games with your team. But we are not club members, so we had to try to get tickets as ordinary joe public.

The tickets were sold through the official website, and the first two rounds of sales were done by draws. The very first round was done last summer before we even knew what teams had qualified. Should be easy to get tickets this round, since we don't care who we see, I thought. 

But there was a catch. If your ticket request was successful in the draw, the tickets were yours and your credit card was charged -- so I was a bit hesitant to apply for very many games. Kerry and I each applied for a couple of games thinking that we'd get at least one. Nope, not a one.

The second lottery round came after Christmas. Same rules, but this time we knew who was playing in every game. We again applied for a couple of games. Again, no luck.

I had just about given up all hope of getting tickets. I knew that some would be released later, but by this point our plans would be made and we wouldn't have the flexibility to get to any game we wanted.

But I hadn't given up hope. I finally had a moment to check the released tickets, and we could get four at Stade de France the day we arrived in Paris. Iceland vs. Austria. How could we not get them. We will likely never be in Europe again for a Euro Cup. Plus, these are not the hooligan fans, so we would likely have a safe journey to and from the stadium. Before Kerry could really think it through, I got the kids excited and we decided to buy them.

I'm so glad we did.

We have tickets. Now we need to pick them up.

We picked up the tickets at the stadium the day of the game. The map made pick up look so easy. Go to the north side of the stadium, and we should find the ticket booth on one of the three roads leading away from the stadium. 

And yes, it would have been easy, if it weren't for the hundred or so policemen blocking all the roads leading to the ticket booth.

The first volunteer helper sent us to the right road according to the map. The police blockading that road send us over one more street. Wading through the drunken, and almost drunken Austrian fans was a bit cumbersome, but we made it, only to find another police line. That line sent us back to the street from which we had just come. 

Then we noticed a large group of police were on the move that looked to be heading somewhere where there might be trouble. Given the number of drinking fans surrounding us, Kerry and I worried this trouble might be nearby. So we hustled out of the group of Austrians.

We found a volunteer standing as though she was directing traffic, but seeing that the street was empty of vehicles, we asked her for help. She sent us back our original direction, to a different road. 

At last! The police barricade across this road had two small breaks in it for women and men to enter separately and be searched.

Yahoo! We had our tickets.

The Security

Funny, but apparently when I'm surrounded by police and military with big guns,
taking photos is not the first thing I think of doing.

I have no idea how many police or military were at the match, but there are 90,000 police, military and private security assigned to the 10 stadiums where the EuroCup matches are held. Based on that number, I think it safe to say there were thousands of police at the match. I almost wonder if there were more police than Icelandic fans. 

You could see police at all times on the 15-minute walk from the train to the stadium. As we got closer, the police presence became much heavier. Getting our tickets, there were not only lines of police barricading the access streets, but lines of police vehicles on the street filled with even more police should they be needed. I read after the match that there are sharp shooters positioned around the stadium. I wish I'd known this earlier and I could have looked for them.

Getting into the stadium was easy. The doors opened three hours before the game so if there was a big congestion of fans getting in, we missed it. We also didn't bring any bags with us, which would have slowed down our entry. Bags were being thoroughly examined.

We were patted down three separate times: behind the first line outside the stadium to go get the tickets; entering the stadium area; and entering the stadium itself. The patting down was ok, but Kerry did have to pull out his Go-Pro that was jammed into a pocket.

Inside the stadium, there wasn't as much of a police/military presence, but there were a lot of security guards all over.

I have to say that I did feel safe. It helps that the teams were Iceland and Austria. However, if I were a French taxpayer, I think I would cringe ever so slightly (or maybe not so slightly) at the amount of tax dollars being spent on security to keep fans at a sporting event safe.

But back to the game...

Things that stood out

This year we've been to a few soccer games (Brazil, Argentina: one club and one international game, and Barcelona). This was quite different from any of those games for a variety of reasons:
  • There were fans for both teams at this game. Elsewhere there are either a few away fans tucked away into a corner, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire, or no away fans in the case of the Argentina club game where away fans were banned. True, we never attended a Classico where the away fans flock to the game, but it was fun at this game seeing both sets of fans in the stands.
  • There was a little pre game show, loud music, and the Eurocup mascot trundled around the field before the game and at half-time. I suspect this is only because it's Eurocup and they are trying to make the event more exciting. None of the other matches we attended had pre-game shows, half time shows, or even loud music; the sole entertainment was the soccer.
  • There were replays on the big screen! We haven't seen any replays at any of the games we've been at this year. I guess international fans don't riot or attack the ref if they disagree with a call?
  • The English. I think there was almost more English spoken at the stadium than any other language, including French! Even the countdown to the game beginning was counted down in English! The French fan next to me shouted out the numbers in English!! This perhaps explains why we are all so bad at learning a second language?

The Fans

A Viking hat for the win.

Of course the fans dressed up. I think the Icelandic fans with Viking hats won. It's tough to get overly enthused about leather pants and wool socks on a warm summer day.

Each team had it's own chants and cheers. 

Austria seemed to sing something that sounded a lot like "When the Saints Go Marching In." 

Iceland though had the best chant of the night - apparently a Viking chant. All of a sudden and all at once, the fans would clap their hands together over their heads and make a big "oomph" sound without the "mph" part. They kept doing this move and sound getting every so slightly quicker with each clap, until they were a clapping and cheering frenzied group. It's perfectly in sync and quite fabulous. You can hear the chant here in a clip from their game against Portugal.

The population of Iceland is 331,000 people. They have no professional soccer clubs. They have no star players. Yet 27,000 of them have come to France to cheer on their team. That's just over 8% of their population!

Even though the Austrian fans outnumbered the Icelandic fans, the Icelandic fans held their own quite well.

The Game

The game itself was exciting. Austria needed to win to have a chance at remaining in the tournament. Iceland was happy with a tie. Iceland scored. Austria missed a penalty kick, and then scored.

Iceland happily defended. They headed the ball away from the net, jumped in front of the ball, and did what they could to prevent a goal. The goalie never rushed when he kicked the ball, leading to all sorts of whistling protests from the Austrian fans the moment the goalie came close the ball.

The Winning Goal

And then just as we thought the game would end in a tie, it actually ended with Iceland getting a break away and scoring on the final play of the game! So fabulously exciting! However, I think the Icelandic announcer captures the moment the best:

And then I found a video showing the announcer, Gummi Ben:

How do you not cheer for Iceland now? A higher percentage of the country's population turned out for the game. They came to the game better dressed. Their chant was better. They scored a spectacular final goal as the final play of the game. And, they have Gummi Ben on their side.

Feel free to cheer them on, and perhaps do your own Viking chant, on Monday as they hopefully defeat England.

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