Well that was a lot better than four years ago folks. A wonder strike from wee Wes Hoolahan set Ireland on our way to a more than deserved point in the Group E game against Sweden but it could have been so much more. We won’t complain however after out last opening game outing in the Euros when in Poznan four years ago Croatia quickly spoiled the party.
With Dave Donnelly ably covering the game for extratime.ie from the press box (see his report here), I got the chance to watch the game from the middle tier of the north end of the ground – a great location to see Ireland’s goal but more of that later.
Outside the Stade de France stadium ahead of the match, we had all the sights of an Ireland away game. Novelty Ireland tricolours hanging from the trees – tick. Footballs being punted high into the air to huge cheers – tick. Ireland and opposition fans mingling freely enjoying each other’s company – tick.
There was a TV crew interviewing a group of fans wearing both Irish and Swedish jerseys who were sitting on chairs in a circle looking like they were enjoying the contents of their bag of cans. This was unlike elsewhere in France, where we’ve seen plastic chairs being hurled through the air in recent days.
There was lots of security as you would expect around the place and, having seen the Guardian’s recent video regarding last year’s terrorist attacks, it was jarring to walk past the spot where one of the bombs detonated and see shrapnel damage still visible.
The police are standing in pockets on the walk up to the ground wearing their body armour with pepper spray ready but the only action thankfully they will see on this day will be posing happily enough in photos with Irish fans!
The searches going into the stadium were pretty diligent as to be expected and anyone with a flag deemed too big or if the contents of bag deemed too dangerous (such as hairspray seemingly!) was asked to deposit it at the entrance gate.
The Irish team are first to arrive into the stadium, the giant TV screen showing their bus being filmed by helicopter from above. The Irish management team were wearing suits but the players had gone for the tracksuit look. After they go for a stroll around the pitch, the Swedish bus arrives. Their whole squad are all suited and booted and later they are the first team to emerge to warm up. The big screen shows them in tunnel waiting till they are all together before coming out onto the field.
They are greeted by a huge roar from the stands – the yellow Swedish clad fans whose main group is naturally enough located at the yellow end of the ground. The PA blasts out the pop tunes including the Black Eyed Peas ‘I Gotta Feeling’. Ireland fans who were in Paris for the Thierry Henry handball playoff in 2009 have flashbacks on being kept in the ground at the end of that game being subjected to that song like a form of torture.
The Swedish supporters have gathered earlier in the ground than the Irish but by kick off the green clad fans outnumber them. With the mini-opening ceremony and the teams lined up below for the anthems, it is a stunning sight with the big block of support in yellow down one end of the stadium and green at the other.
It is an emotional Amhrán na bhFiann that is sung with such gusto, a song driven out into the early evening air. It is sung by supporters who have worked hard to get here securing tickets, flights and some beating strikes to be in Paris to follow their team. When Ireland President Michael D. Higgins appears on the big screen, the singing is broken by a cheer from the supporters.
Ireland dominate the opening half, in such contrast to the Croatia game four years ago, and they really should have led by half-time. There is incessant singing throughout the half, with the Ireland fans behind the goal on their feet for all of the game.
This time around the ‘Fields of Athenry’ is sung in response to a decent performance on the pitch and not just a singsong – although we do get to hear being sung at the Swedish fans ‘Your shit, but your birds are fit’ (#everydaysexism)!
At half-time the talk is all about whether Ireland have missed their chance to win the game by not taking their opportunities in front of goal. Jeff Hendrick’s curling effort off the crossbar was as close as the Boys in Green got to the opener before the break.
We don’t have to wait long for a goal though. With the corporate fans on the half-way line still coming back to their seats after the break, and no doubt some Irish fans who were still queuing for the 0.5% beer inside the ground, they missed Ireland’s well worked goal. With our League of Ireland hat on, it was great to see the goal come from some of our own, as former Sligo Rovers player Seamus Coleman craftily created some space to pick out ex-Shels man Wes Hoolahan to score in the 48th goal.
The celebration was pure mayhem. It was one of those where not only were you embracing your friends beside you but the random bloke in the row in front and behind. My left calf and right shin are still feeling the affects of being bounced every which way by the celebrating melee – but it is so worth it.
Ireland couldn’t build on the lead however and went back into their shell. The fear in the lead up to the game was that Zlatan only needed one opportunity to punish Ireland. The talismanic Ibra got free on the left and his dangerous cross was put past Randolph by Clark (albeit with Larsson lurking behind to tap it home).
The reaction at the final whistle was telling. The disappointment of the Ireland players in not holding on for the win and also the disappointment of the Swedish supporters on the exit from the stadium at the performance of their own team.
Back in the city centre later, fans gathered in the bars of Montemarte to dissect the game and watch their opponents in the next game. The expected win for Belgium didn’t materialise as the Antonio Conte’s Italian side pulled off a 2-0 win. Ireland will now face a wounded Belgium in Bordeaux on Saturday and that is where the party moves over the next few days for the Boys and Girls in Green.