Letter from Lyon: Football embroiled in a world full of anger

While France 98 felt like a celebration, this tournament has a much darker side

Monday morning, Nice: the front page of the local newspaper, Nice-Matin, which has a footballer logo in its title for Euro 2016, carries a photograph of a smiling Northern Ireland fan being embraced by a Poland supporter.

“Le foot qu’on aime” is the headline. Roughly, “football unites”.

The sub-heading contains the phrase “après les violences a Marseille”, here was “ambiance festive”.

It was a happy image, it gave the European Championships a good name and the sun was shining as we turned onto Rue Gustave Deloye. Suddenly there were three soldiers in green combats.


Heavily armed and alert, as we passed by, it became clear why they were where they were: to protect Nice’s synagogue.

Last year three soldiers were stabbed outside a nearby Jewish community centre.

It was a jolt. There were four of us in a car – a Cockney, two Scousers and an Irishman, the collective noun for which would be 'joke'. But we stopped laughing. Those guns took us away from Euro 2016 just as the footage of a local black man being flattened by a single punch in Marseille had done the day before. It was hard to tell whether the perpetrator was English or Russian but the malevolence was horrific. Football unites?

Even when returning our thoughts to the tournament it was to hear the breaking news that Darren Rodgers, maybe one of those Northern Ireland fans Nice-Matin captured paddling in the city's fountains, had died after his fall from the promenade. He was 24 and your heart sank.

Tuesday morning, Lyon: at 8.30 down town on Rue Saint Michel the school run was on. Hands were being held as the gates approached, these primary school children doubtless oblivious to their parents' concerns.

Adult France was getting on with daily life while digesting the overnight news of the murder of a 42-year-old policeman and his 36-year-old partner north of Paris. They too had a young child, a three year-old son. Reports said the boy was spared, though that hardly seemed the right term.

Isis claimed responsibility and once again the idea that France's focus – Europe's focus – could be on a football tournament was bizarre going-on-inappropriate. But the show does go on. Austria and Hungary had to get a kick, so too Portugal and Iceland.


Little Iceland. They finished fifth in Ireland's qualifying group the last time France hosted such an occasion, the 1998 World Cup. Now Iceland are here, in beautiful Bordeaux, their introduction to this stage coming against a backdrop of French anxiety, international insecurity and Uefa threatening to expel Russia.

At France 98, Iceland would have been party guests; at Euro 2016 they’re participants in something everyone hopes will pass off okay.

At France 98 on the way to Place Bellecour in Lyon you could photograph a shop window display featuring French Tricolour bras. Jeux sans frontieres!

At Euro 2016 you could video an innocent man being knocked unconscious by a marauding thug.

It’s not easy. We make serious claims for football, about its ability to change a mood, and they’re not all far-fetched. But that one we made about France 98 and the new France Zizou, Thuram and Henry represented looks thin.

Today football, including French football, is embroiled in this angry world. At the peage on the way from Nice to Lyon, an Olympique Lyon FC sticker proclaims "FCK ISIS". Some of the club's ultras made it. They've T-shirts with the same message.

This is similar, only different, to those “FICK FUFA” stickers on lampposts in Johannesburg in 2010. That was an internal sports fight compared to this.

But then in 2010 the Arab Spring was a phrase not yet heard and Aleppo was a functioning Syrian city, one that had recently been twinned with Lyon.

If the world felt tetchy then, it was nothing compared to today. And then football, Euro 2016, intervenes, draws you back in.

On Monday night at the Stade de Lyon – a trek from Lyon by the way – it was genuinely touching to witness Italy’s national anthem being applauded throughout by the thousands of Belgium fans who had decorated the occasion in their country’s rouge.

Belgian supporters did the same for La Marseillaise when they faced France last year. It’s a trend to be promoted, a small, simple act that might dilute some of the posturing jingoism masquerading as football support.

Altered the atmosphere

Those Belgian fans altered the atmosphere – and Belgium is a divided country, linguistically, culturally. Football can unite.

But nothing alters an atmosphere quite like a gun. When you see armed soldiers and police outside a synagogue or down the street from Lyon’s stadium, you know the world beyond planet football is in a state o’ chassis.

France itself is in a state of emergency. That’s the official status, extended last month to cover the end of Euro 2016. Monday night’s events north of Paris show why, though whether the status is effective is the subject of debate.

Back in May 2010 when France was awarded the tournament, presumably they thought the debate would be about formations and personnel. There will have been happy memories of France 98.

Then football was a vehicle for vibrant optimism. The 1990s were not problem-free but that tournament was the big picture. The world looked on. “Le foot qu’on aime”.

Through no fault of its own this one feels a small part of a broader canvas, one splattered with angst.

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer