A Taste of Tournament Football

‘I’m close enough to Martin Skrtel to see him properly’

‘I’m close enough to Martin Skrtel to properly assess his game’

‘I’m close enough to Martin Skrtel to boo him, and for him to hear me’

The thought process of a centre-back watching Manchester United fan, as I realised just how close I was to a player I’d seen so many times on TV screens, so far away and abstract, as I sat in the corner of Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy. For the record, I didn’t boo him – although, sitting in the Russian end of the stadium, I would have been forgiven for doing so.

A brief divergence from booing Martin Skrtel. I have gleaned, from Twitter, that you can often tell how good a piece of comment writing is by how often the writer refers to themselves. You don’t write ‘I’. I just have, 7 times now.

But I (there one goes again) feel this may be forgivable here, as this is an inevitably personal piece of writing. The match between Russia and Slovakia was the first piece of international tournament football I’ve ever been to. Not having been to a World Cup or European Championship game is a position most football fans are probably in. The costs and distances can be very large, the chance of tickets can be slim, and the prospect of a holiday abroad amongst drunken football fans without seeing a live game in the flesh is not necessarily a very attractive one.

Fortunately, French accommodation was readily available to me via a uni year abroad, travel would be limited to trains within the country, and it turned out that tickets were fairly freely available (even if, in my desperation to get some, I plumped for more slightly painfully expensive Category 2 options).

International tournament football, the match as well as the day that surrounds it, is weird.

Two nations descend on a town, draped in flags and the colours of their motherland, faces painted and singing songs. For a day, the city centre gains an extra two official languages (or may as well do, with more on the streets speaking Russian, say, than the host’s tongue). The centre of town and the public transport links to the stadium take on a strange sort of holiday park feel to them, as if they aren’t really real places at all. Somewhere new, somewhere removed from the ‘real world’.

Maybe it’s just that, as a newcomer to the tournament experience, you expect this. Maybe it’s a kind of delayed reaction. Maybe it depends on you. But the stadium itself is where it hits that this, an international tournament, is not football as you know it.

Everyone is wearing their nation’s colours; gone is the patchwork of league game crowds where, for some, being seen wearing a club shirt as a grown adult is a slight embarrassment. The stadium is painted in solid blocks instead, vivid and strong, and the atmosphere…

 

In normal football – in real world football where matches are always boring and life is a constant disappointment – the home team is responsible for the atmosphere. The entertainment of entire matches can live and die on how one team performs for just short periods of the match at a time.

Through the looking glass in the Wonderland of (well-attended, I’ll admit) international tournaments, atmosphere isn’t dictated by one side, punctured and collapsing with a mediocre 15 minutes of play. It’s constant, back-and-forth, a conversation. Chants rise and fall as oft as possession changes. One side whistles, the other cheers; one end rings with cries in their language, the other responds in cries of their own. Both together. Both separate. Both loud, and proud, and eager.

Sometime in the first half, I think, of the Russia-Slovakia match, a Mexican wave wound its way around the stadium, from Slovakians to Russians and back again and back again.

Later on in the game, with Slovakia leading 2-0, an effort was made to reignite The Wave from their end. It faded and vanished when it hit the Russians. The Slovakians tried again. Again, the wave broke against the Russian wall.

They tried again. And then again.

I think today I witnessed my first ever ‘destined-to-fail-Mexican-wave as taunt’. You don’t get that in league football. You don’t get that outside of Wonderland.

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