Dimitri Payet lights the blue touch paper as France unites

Euro 2016 starts with an emotional bang as Didier Deschamps’ men clear first hurdle

Viva la République. After the floods and the fears, a football party broke out in Paris on Friday evening. Euro 2016 has started with a 2-1 for France and a screamingly wonderful 89th minute goal from Dimtri Payet.

As 80,000 fans made their way from central Paris to the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, the heavy if relaxed security presence awaiting them brought into focus the dark events of last November and the general hope that there coming weeks of football will be a cause for celebration in France.

The opening act augured well enough. It was only when the football began that the spotlight shone on the burden of expectation weighing on Didier Deschamp’s highly rated young host team. Typically, the French have bucked international trends in cheerfully winning both major tournaments they have hosted: the European championships of 1984 and that evocative world cup campaign in 1998.

France expects and the country could use a shot of national triumph. Like the '98 tournament, this year's festival opens with the constant threat of rail strikes: whatever pressure Deschamp's may feel must pale in comparison to the worries of Alain Vidales, the transport minister.


Down in Marseilles, the English football fans did their best to resurrect memories of ‘98 by engaging the police in late-night warm weather street battles on Thursday and Friday night. But the menace felt more ceremonial - even nostalgic - than real; they haven’t even waited for the first major disappointment by Roy Hodgson’s men in order to vent their frustration on bistro terrace furniture.

Meanwhile, rubbish piles have gathered uncollected on Parisian street corners and the threat of terrorist atrocity will continue to cause an underlying note of anxiety as the football festivals spring to life in the host cities.

The French and Romanian teams marched out from the tunnel to find the playing field already occupied by several hundred dancers, the brass section of La Garde Republican, a choir, artificial flora and the most famous disc jockey on planet earth: players from both countries must have been wondering how they were supposed to get their passing game going through this mob.

The opening ceremony was classically French in that it was under-stated and sophisticated and possibly cost less than a hundred euro: whereas most host nations throw dazzle with expense, this show was so light and simple that it might have been performed by an exceptionally gifted arts and crafts class. There was music by Edith Piaf and the centrepiece gazebo was undraped to reveal a headphoned and delighted David Guetta, who quickly found out that 80,000 fans ravenous for football are a tougher sell than the Ibiza crowd. It was all very uplifting but as ever at major sports events, the real sound and performance was provided by the crowd, who gave as heartfelt and loud a rendition of Les Marseillaise as has ever been heard in the city.

The theatrical performers and backdrop remained on the field throughout the anthems, worryingly close to kick-off. For a chilling second the thought must have occurred that the entire repertory company, including Guetta himself, had decided to go on strike. But the pitch was cleared with stunning swiftness and after a countdown from ten, Euro 2016 began bang on time.

All of the worries and setbacks vanished in the first half as the French unlocked Romania’s organised defence with a series of exquisitely crafted attacks.

Antoine GriezmaNn struck the post with a header after Bacary Sagna’s tailored cross in the 14th minute. Then in the 36th minute Griezmann went close again, meeting a cross by Payet with a snap-shot which all of France believed in.

After Nicolae Stancu forced a point-blank save from Hugo Lloris off a third minute corner from Romania, the visitors had to be satisfied that this was, after all, a French show. 0-0 at the break but there already there were signs in the general effortless of Paul Pogba's gliding superiority and the busy, harassing presence of N'Golo Kante who managed to be everywhere all at once in this match.

But there is a vulnerable streak within the French defence and Olivier Giroud carried the air of a gambler desperate to break a cursed streak. In the 58th minute, he did just that: crashing onto Payet's perfect delivery to head home. France erupted and football reclaimed the ground.

The Republic of Ireland will open their campaign on Monday against Sweden here in the Stade de France, guaranteeing another evocative occasion. But this night belonged to the French as their team pressed forward with increasing boldness and imagination and several impromptu outbreaks of the anthem.

A Romanian penalty out of the blue- following a needless foul by Patrice Evra on Stanciu - was coolly slotted home by Bogdan Stancu. It dampened the local mood only slightly and then came Payet's beautiful thunderbolt. France, team and country will be fine. Payet fought tears as he left the field and maybe for more than his goal. This was just the first football match. Getting the people home safely was, deep down, the true business of the night.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times