FRANCE fans brushed any security fears aside to offer feverish support to the host nation in their Euro 2016 opener at the Stade de France on Friday.
The home crowd had to wait for a superb late goal by France’s man-of-the match Dimitri Payet for a 2-1 victory over Romania before disappearing into the night with smiles on their faces.
Reaching the elegant arena on the outskirts of Paris on a stormy evening posed a challenge for some because of rail transport disruption in a country plagued for weeks by mass protests against a labour law.
“I would have walked,” said Paul, 21, his team’s colours painted on his cheek.
“We may not have garbage collection at the moment in France but we have the best side in the world,” he added, referring to another of the problems besetting France on the first day of the month-long tournament.
Under his arm was a copy of French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe, with the front-page headline urging France to “write history again” after lifting the World Cup on that same pitch in 1998.
There were dark moments here, too. The stadium was one of the sites targeted by last November’s Islamist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.
Armed police with bulletproof vests and a double security perimeter with two successive security checks for the supporters, who were asked to come to the stadium early, provided a reminder of the organisers’ greatest concern.
“We’re used to seeing men in uniform with assault rifles these days and there aren’t that many around here,” said Yohann, 24, proudly wearing France’s fondly-remembered 1998 shirt. “It’s okay, we’re not scared.”
More than 90,000 police, soldiers and private security agents will be deployed across France to ensure safety during the tournament which is expected to attract about 2.5 million spectators.
“Our main aim has been to make sure we could offer the best possible tournament given the circumstances in every aspect, and that includes security,” organising committee chairman Jacques Lambert told a pre-tournament news conference.
Waiting for those who made it to their seats early enough was an opening ceremony celebrating French popular culture, with DJ David Guetta performing the tournament’s official anthem, high kicks from can-can dancers and aerobatics from the Patrouille de France jets.
Thousands of fans decided to watch the match at the giant fan zone near the Eiffel Tower, where they could have a picnic on the lawn while watching the action on giant screens after undergoing security checks similar to those at the game venues.
“I feel much better here in the open air with the Eiffel Tower in the background than I would in a bar,” said Jonathan Berg, 29, who came from Belgium to watch.
Security experts and police officials have said protecting the fan zones, where some 8 million people are expected over the period, would be the biggest challenge.
No incidents were reported there on Friday.