The lines at Eiffel tower are always busy. But this time was different. The tower, which Isabelle called the “most over-rated world famous tourist spot in the world”, had a giant football hanging above its wide arch. Flags welcoming fans to the “Euro 2016 finals” were fluttering in the breeze. It was a glorious day, the sun was bright and welcoming. A small group wearing the Red Crescent boisterously sung “Oh Turkiye”, while a few Red/Blue and white polka dots milled around, drinking cheap beer peddled by the Pakistani and Bangladeshi street vendors. 2 Euros a beer, barely half-filled, more water than beer, a real scam, but this was Paris. What started as a trickle turned into a stampede. As night fell, Eiffel was lit up in Blue, White and Red. Gun-toting policemen, a grim reminder that France was still under an emergency, started washing up in their sleek cars, sirens blazing, took one look at the crowd and rang for reinforcements. Not that we were unruly. Both groups of fans sang their national anthems, hissed at each other from across the street, were loud and obnoxious but all in good humor. I moved from one group to the other, singing with the first and jumping with the second, a true neutral living a 15-year dream. “That Turan is good”. Modric is going to dominate the mid-field”. Beer and broken English flowed. We danced right under the nose of the police who, to their credit successfully ignored us and stared. I might have learnt a bit of Turkish. The Senegalese souvenir sellers had a great time, despite the numerous baton charges by the police; each time the police chased them away, they would miraculously appear at the other end of the street. At the end of three hours, I could barely stand. I hugged strangers, posed for groupies in incriminating postures, and wished both sets of supporters luck. “I’ll see you at the stadium, maybe”. Different shirts, same scene. All three pre-game evenings. Congregating at Eiffel the evening before a game become the norm. A mass of humanity bound only by their love for the beautiful game.
Someone forgot to inform the locals that they need to share the world’s enthusiasm for their city and the tournament. Train drivers went on strike the day I landed in Paris, following the spate of other union strikes the previous weeks. Isabelle said the unions made it a habit of striking before a major event, for maximum mileage and bargaining leverage. Paris locals grumbled about the metro, the traffic, and the city being over-run by drunken fans and broken bottles. Streets piled on garbage, petrol was in short supply, and the city stunk. Isabelle summed it up nicely “Welcome to France in crisis”. It had rained the whole week, Seine was in spate, Louvre was shut. Even the elements were conspiring against football.
Football fans are a different breed. We don’t care about the weather, the long queues, the crowded metro, or the dirty looks from flustered locals. We sacrifice careers, family and sleep for an hour-and-half of bliss. Over and over again. We mass in numbers, get drunk and sing through the night, perfect strangers behaving like childhood buddies. Some of us fight, a minority loot, get arrested and are deported. You’ve got to support the team. I have been hooked on football so long that my hit rate on predicting games is better than that with currencies. It is my coffee, my addiction and my stimulant to get through life. Paris was my homage to the beautiful game.
The pilgrimage started the next day at the “La Defense” metro. A group of Turkish fans were equally lost. We resolved to stick together till Parc des Princes, guessing more dialects were better at asking directions. We need not have worried. In a couple of stops, the coach was full of fans, all nodding at the other shirts and hugging their shirts as they entered the coach. The train was jam-packed. With perfect synchronization, each group shouted its slogans and sang its anthem, welcoming at each stop, friends and temporary foes for the day. “We’ll kick your ass”. At the changeover, I followed the mass of humanity to another train. Strangers pulled me in. It seemed the whole train was headed to the stadium. At the exit, we followed the painted football signs on the sidewalk, lamp-posts and walk-ways to the stadium. At the queues, the crowd neatly split into two groups, with their chants, anthems and flags. Riot police in full gear stood between the two groups, more to pre-empt. It was a damp, wet day but our spirits hardly were. More staring, finger-wagging and chanting. Luckily, I was wearing a neutral shirt.
In a single file, we marched through the multiple check-points in to the stadium. Others grumbled, but as an Indian used to near strip-searches at local stadiums, this was a breeze. I grabbed a beer and walked to my category A seat, at the center of the pitch, high above the ground. I wanted to be there a couple of hours before the kick-off, just to breathe the air, and stare at the ground. Make mental notes as to how different it looks in real life. Yelling at the TV is exciting, so is throwing stuff, but nothing prepares you for that moment when the green pitch and the imposing stands come into view. A tingle went up my spine. I stood at the entrance for a while, till a rather suspicious usher pointed out my seat. I may have been crying. Why hadn’t I done this earlier? The rain stopped as if on cue, and the sun poked through the clouds. I am not a believer, but this was divine intervention. My stand had waves of Turkey supporters, so I was one for the day. An hour before the kick-off, the stadium was buzzing, with not a seat empty around. Cheers went around when the team buses were shown on the stadium TV, and the roof came down when the teams came on to the pitch for their warm-ups. Noise levels reached a crescendo at the national anthems. Fans, who till then had engaged in a running battle to shout down the other group, stood perfectly still for each other’s national anthems. Mutual respect and brotherhood, before the war erupts. Around me, Turkish fans hugged and cried. A few Croatians in the front row took a few minutes to recover from the emotion.
As the game began, it was evident that Croatia, with the ravaging Modric, bossed the midfield and it was only a matter of time before they scored. The Turkish fans though never lost heart. They cheered every pass, groaned at every tackle, and booed the referee, accusing him of being a Croat, and sung “Oh Turkiye” right through the game. The Croatian fans realized they were the better team, and lustily sung their anthem, egging their team to score. The fans down at the corners took the lead, banging their planks and seats each time their team took the ball. And so it passed, the ball from one team to another, and the waves and chants from one set of supporters to the other. I prayed for a goal, just one, any kind would do, give me a deflected cross or something. It would be a shame if my first real game of world football ended in a goal-less draw. The Turkey goal-keeper tipped a header from Srna on to the cross-bar, and I almost got killed for shouting while the stand groaned. Fans cannot stand a traitor in their midst, especially when their team is under pressure.
And right before half-time, Modric scored with a glorious long-range volley off a corner which Turkey failed to clear their lines. The other half of the stadium erupted in waves of joy, with the celebrations seeming to last forever, and a collective groan rang from our stand. I muffled a cheer as the ball hit the back of the net, and made the necessary noises. It was always a question of time. The Turkish fans refused to give up, and booed their own coach as he took off a woefully ineffective Turan at the hour, and put on a nippy teenager who showed far more enthusiasm than the rest of the team. Fans can be merciless. A couple of close shaves followed, some long-distance efforts which raised tempers among the Turkey supporters, who by then, sensed it wasn’t their day. Croatia should have scored more on the counter, and hit the post again, but they settled for a well-deserved 1-0 win. Croat fans sang the most joyous national anthem I’ve ever heard, while Turkey supporters filed out silently, devastated. The metro ride back was first joyous in the Croatian coach, and deathly silent on the Turkish coach at the inter-change. It is never “just” a game.
The next day was a metro ride to Saint-Denis. Swedish fans, even when drunk, are courteous while the Irish drink like fish. I thought these were myths. Zlatan this, Zlatan that, the conversation flowed. “Were you there when he hit that overhead kick?” I asked an elderly couple in yellow and chanting his name on the metro. “We sure were, we’ve watched all of our team’s games the last 10 years”, the lady beamed. She had a motherly smile. A group of unruly looking and obviously drunk Irish fans offered me a free ticket, as I said I was a great fan of Keano and Long. “Join us for a drink mate” they said. Cars with the respective flags wrapped on the hood, honked as they passed us. Bistros offered beers at half the price for Swedish and Irish fans. Souvenir shops made a killing, peddling team scarfs for 20 Euros. Scalpers walked around, asking if I needed tickets. Glum-faced fans held aloft placards that said “Need ticket, willing to pay up to 150 Euros”. Early booking has its benefits.
It is a great stadium, Stade de France, the largest in the country, with a capacity of 85,000. Majestic and imposing, when full, the noise must feel like a gladiatorial ring. I was again a couple of hours early, and the ushers were nicer, allowed me to roam across stands, and take as many snaps as I wished. One old man probably has probably worked here for ages, he had a quizzical look as I jumped from one stand to another. Elements play a smaller role here than at the Parc Des Princes, and one sits higher up, and with a 360 degree view without craning the neck. It was a glorious evening and streaks of gold washed across the bright green pitch. I watched Spain beat the Czech on the giant screen, and was growled at for celebrating Pique’s goal by an angry Czech couple. “We couldn’t get tickets to Tolouse”, the girl said. I commiserated and pointed out that Petr Cech was my favorite, which calmed them a bit. 85,000 must be tough to fill, as large as the MCG, but this is football. “Ole, ole ole ole. Ole, ole” the Swedish chanted as their numbers grew. The loudest cheer went out to Zlatan as he warmed up, he is a true superstar and the Swedes had a lot riding on him and the man with the wonderful free-kick, Larsson. The belly of the stadium was equally split between both sets of fans at kick-off. One side of the stadium, the one in the sunshine was bright yellow, while the other in the shade was a glorious Green. “Stand up for the boys in Green” sang the Irish. The Swedes chanted his name.
The Irish dominated from the word-go, with the wings tearing up the field, while the Swedish defenders looked their age. Brady and Hoolahan ran rings around the defense from the left, while Coleman was a one-man battering ram from the right. Hoolahan scored a stunner, the Irish celebrations had to be broken up by the referee, and it seemed the green army will have a lot to cheer. But they kept missing simple chances, and the guy next to me said “Let’s hope we don’t pay for it”. Long worked himself to death and missed a one-on-one with the keeper, it should have been 3-0 by now. Zlatan had a couple of men on him every time he took a touch and was mostly ineffective, but in a moment of brilliance, skipped past a couple of defenders on the left wing, and crossed a sharp ball in to the box. Own goal by a diving Clark, but he had to dive, there was a forward waiting to tuck it in. “Aaaah” went the Irish, “Yes” went the Swedes. Names I had watched for years on the telly in flesh and blood, and Brady and Coleman were a couple of paces quicker than they appeared on TV, but the biggest attraction was Zlatan. He had an off-day, but was pivotal in the own goal. The game meandered in to a dull draw as both teams seemed happy to take a point from their opening game. Maybe I will see Zlatan score one of his spectacular volleys this year at Manchester. Stadiums have the effect of stretching your line of vision, and among all sports, football has the most intense fan engagement. You can see that diagonal pass which Coleman should have chipped for Keano, and the back-flick that Brady tried to play through to Long, and wonder why they can’t see what is so evident to you. The mind instinctively recognizes the infinite possibilities. You itch to play like your heroes, but settle for a hoarse throat.
I went back to Stade de France two days later, this time for the World champions against their nemesis. Muller against Lewandowski. Neur and Schweini on the same pitch. Surely the game of my life. History suggested a German victory while form pointed to the Poles. The Germans I traveled with, from the station to the stadium, swore Goetze is a genius and Ozil the best left-footed player of this generation. Football passion isn’t built on facts. It was a 9PM kick-off and the stadium glowed under the lights. I have always hated late night kick-offs, the night-guy always screws the day-guy, but football under the lights, in one of the great stadiums in Europe, is surreal. The German national anthem, the one I had heard a thousand times over the years, sounded very familiar, and the Germans vastly out-numbered the Poles. But the game was a dull, drab encounter, with both defenses holding strong, and the midfield hardly creating any chances. Such talent on the pitch and can’t conjure up a goal! The crowd kept their spirits up with Mexican waves; one game in which the spirits off the pitch were better than the ones on it.
A goal wasn’t meant to be, the game didn’t deserve one. I furiously pinged Dana, who quickly assured me Germany would score in their next game. “I’ve prayed for a win” she said. Couldn’t you pray a day earlier, the trip would’ve been perfect! And while you are at it, can you pray for a rain-free couple of days? German fans were surprisingly happy that night. “We have qualified, we are going to win” they cheered on the streets. I found myself in a gorgeous little pub, surrounded by Germans of all sizes. And some Irish fans, who were still glum after their last game, Romanians fully expecting to lose, Brits expecting to win, but all drinking barrels. We exchanged sports and travel stories till early morning. Football, beer and shared experiences. Maybe the protesting Union workers should be gifted a ticket to the next game. That ought to calm them down, and not make a fool of themselves on the world stage. Or atleast bring their minds around to the fact that life isn’t about perks and working hours. It’s about football. Joga bonito rules.