France gets Euro-ready on and off field

Eiffel-tower A picture taken on June 9, 2016 from the Montparnasse tower shows the opening concert of the Paris fan zone on the Champs de Mars by the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, a day before the start of the Euro 2016 | AFP

Two days before the Euro 2016 tournament was scheduled to kick off in France this weekend, INTERPOL issued a statement intended to reassure people going there for the sport.

“An INTERPOL Major Events Support Team has been deployed to Paris as part of the world police body’s support to the security framework around the Euro,” it read.

It spoke of more than two millions fans from around the world “bringing all the associated threats and security issues.”

Sometimes, a statement of police surveillance has the opposite effect to that intended. INTERPOL said its cyberspace surveillance 24-hour centre in April prevented terrorists in the Balkans smuggling into France 40 firearms, six kg of explosives, 11 hand grenades and 1,300 pieces of ammunition.

Why does that sound less than reassuring?

Because the police are talking about my sport, and about the freedom to attend a 24-nation, 51 games festival in 10 stadiums throughout France from now until July 10.

And because of the evidence from last November when ISIS sympathisers from within France killed 130 innocent people enjoying a night out at cafes or at a rock concert in Paris.

How dare I be so pessimistic, so fearful?

Face facts. When the security forces tracked down some of the ringleaders of the November massacre, they traced them to apartment blocks close to Stade de France, the national stadium on the northern outskirts of Paris.

I know this place. Eighteen years ago, on the day that France played Italy, I walked the streets of St. Denis. I asked whether any of the residents had a ticket.

“You are joking with us?” they replied. They were poor, mainly immigrants from North Africa. Their struggle to earn a living left no spare cash for tickets.

“But,” said one pleasant you mother whose family ran a bar in St Denis, “When Zizou is playing for France, we are more French than the French.”

Zizou, alias Zinedine Zidane, whose parents migrated from Algeria to Marseille, was raised in a similar community.

Zidane’s goals, his exceptional header, won the ’98 final for France against Brazil.

Michel Platini’s nine goals almost single handedly led France to win the 1984 Euro, again on French soil.

Alas, Platini is now persona non grata. As UEFA president, he oversaw the expansion of the Euro from eight to the bloated 24 countries involved now.

Platini gave his country the chance to build or to refurbish stadiums in the major cities of his homeland. This, France hopes, will reignite enthusiasm, and give the country’s domestic league a modern, more lucrative boost for the future.

Fair enough. Why should France keep exporting superb players, like Platini and Zizou, and like Paul Pogba, Dmitri Payet, and N'Golo Kanté (the human dynamo who helped the Leicester City miracle this year?)

The better the French players are, the more they are likely to be enticed to England, Spain or Germany. The money is irresistible, more so to the sons of migrants who for mere subsistence or through the new wave of mass migration from Syria and the Balkans are trying everything that moves, from trekking overland to boarding unsafe dinghies on hostile seas to make it to Europe.

I hate to say it, but the cultural disdain for the migrants, the fact that so many of them live in deprived areas and feel economically and socially disenfranchised doesn’t help the process of integration. No ticket for any game, even while Les Bleus, the national team is as multi-ethnic as any in the world, can alienate.

UEFA doesn’t help. Its own competitions are too elitist, and for every Thierry Henry who wins the Champions League and the World Cup, there are hundreds of thousands who play on the streets because the game simulates the where nothing hat they can afford might do.

This, I acknowledge, is terribly defeatist. What would you rather I do? Maybe go along with Noël Le Graët, the cheery president of French football who writes in the official brochure:

“Here we are! Euro 2016 is finally upon us. France loves football. Now is the challenge to deliver the organisation and hospitality of the highest standard. We know how to do this and France is ready.”

It would not be a surprise if Les Bleus win the title, for the third time when France has been at home, France has won at home.

Germany and Spain, the two nations that have dominated European and World soccer for the better part of a decade, are again among the favourites. So are the Belgians and the English, if they can get the best out of themselves.

And there are minnows, first time qualifiers like Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales. You don’t reckon their chances? Think of Leicester city.

How wonderful it will be if, at the end on June 10, we are all talking about Le Sport. And not the other thing.

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Topics : #football

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