Gallant losers on the field, tournament champions off it
News review of 2016: Euro 2016 may well have been the Irish fans’ finest hour
France’s Patrice Evra and Ireland’s Seamus Coleman at Euro 2016. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty
After the debacle of Poland in 2012, when Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland lost all three matches, our footballers had a much more successful Euro 2016. A bloated 24-team format allowed two Irish teams to play at the same tournament for the first time. Both were led by managers called O’Neill. Both won games and got through to the knockout stages.
Martin O’Neill’s Republic had the most memorable result, beating Italy to qualify for the last 16. There they lost gallantly to the hosts, as polite guests should. But with such an inflated tournament and so many predictable results, the real competition in France 2016 was sometimes elsewhere than the playing pitches.
Especially for the smaller nations, the football often seemed to be a mere backdrop for a contest to establish who had Europe’s best fans. Those of Iceland and Wales were big contenders. So were both sets of Irish supporters.
The unwritten rules of this competition include drinking as much as possible without ever causing trouble (unlike the Russians, or some English). But conspicuous acts of philanthropy are also required, and having long ago proven their non-violent drinking capacity, the Republic’s following seemed to have developed this part of their game in particular during 2016.
Every day in France brought new stories of Irish supporters being charming, helpful, or just funny in their interactions with locals or opposition teams. Crucially, many of these were recorded on social media, and the best clips were picked up by French TV and newspaper websites, which then relayed them to millions.
The fun was indeed sometimes best enjoyed on television, or at any rate from a safe distance. Up close, not all locals were charmed by the offensive, especially those Parisians who had the misfortune of living near the Irish pubs of Pigalle and who endured sleepless nights and unofficial pissotiéres in their neighbourhood.
But for most French people, it seemed, the Irish and their greatest-hits video collection made only a good impression. The mayor of Bordeaux was reported to be “seduced” by the spectacle of supporters serenading French police. The mayor of Paris went further.
Having hosted both Irish teams at different times, Anne Hidalgo declared their fans joint champions of the tournament, awarding them medals accordingly. Eighteen years after the Belfast Agreement, and in Ireland’s year of war centenaries, it was another small milestone in the peace process.
France had its own violence problem to deal with during 2016. The tournament took place only months after the latest terrorist attacks had led some, including veteran football star Just Fontaine, to question the country’s ability to host the event.
Those worried about the Paris fanzone – an area beside the Eiffel Tower where up to 90,000 supporters would be expected to watch games on giant screens – included the French police chief. He wanted it closed, arguing that his officers were already too stretched by the combination of the tournament and the country’s mass industrial protests, which continued despite the football.
But all the fanzones stayed open, and thanks to several layers of tight security around them, they proved to be safe, as did the tournament at large. In retrospect, the Irish who congregated in huge numbers on streets at night, watched over by only a handful of police, may have been a bigger risk.
As the events of Bastille Day in Nice showed, however, the terrorists were looking elsewhere. There were some complaints there of a shortage of policing for a celebration involving so many. Safely home by then, many football supporters will have wondered guiltily if Nice’s horror was even partly the result of an exhausted post-football France letting its guard down.
On a happier note, there are signs that the fans’ diplomacy mission during the Euros is having long-term benefits. These may or may not include the “important matter” about which, as reported in October, a French woman wanted to contact an Irish supporter she had met in Lyon in late June.
Also in October, the organisers of the Dublin City Marathon were crediting the Euro 2016 effect for a record field of 19,500, including triple the usual number of participants from France.
The Ireland teams, meanwhile, were also building on the progress made in the summer. Martin O’Neill’s side capped a fine autumn by beating Austria in Vienna last month, leaving them top of their World Cup qualifying group and looking good for a place at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
But Russia is a much bigger logistical challenge for travelling supporters than France. Qatar in 2022 would be even more daunting. As for the 2020 Euros, that will be another new departure for the competition format, with games scattered across 13 different countries, including Ireland.
This all helps to explain the enormous popularity among supporters of the tournament in France. For the kind of road-tripping Irish fan immortalised in Christy Moore’s song Joxer Goes to Stuttgart, Euro 2016 may have been the finest hour. It may also have been the end of an era.