Wednesday 15th June 2016 – Russia 1 – 2 Slovakia
Euro 2016 Group B @ Stade Pierre-Mouroy, Lille, France
Euro 96 was were it all began for me as a fan. The first international tournament I was aware of, and from that moment on, an aim to visit one myself, and experience the atmosphere that a month of solid football would offer. With the next two World Cups being held in a seemingly unfriendly Russia and the human rights violation that is Qatar, and Euro 2020 being designated a continental musical chairs, coupled with an impending new arrival in the family, Euro 2016 was to be that final opportunity (for now).
Despite applying for dozens of tickets in the ballot, I was initially only successful in obtaining one pair of group stage tickets for a Thursday afternoon game in Lens. A bit of a disappointment, and it seemed like a waste to take three days off work for one game. Then the draw was made – and that crummy fixture turned out to be England vs Wales – more on that in Part 2.
So it was on. And to add a bit more depth to the trip, I managed to get further tickets in the re-sale for Russia vs Slovakia in Lille the day before. Lille was to be our base. Hotels booked. Eurostar sorted. Pubs scouted. I was really looking forward to this.
Suddenly a trip to a Lille filled with English, Welsh, and seemingly hell-bent on destruction Russian fans didn’t seem so attractive. Twitter accounts over the weekend detailed how innocents, as well as the usual so-called louts, had been picked off by these state-sponsored thugs from the east. I wasn’t fancying having my jaw dislodged from my face in a Lille backstreet or being tear gassed by French police. Family asked me not to go. Friends asked me to reconsider. Packing for the trip of a lifetime suddenly seemed like I was preparing to head off to the frontline. But to not go would be accepting that hooliganism has won. After much debate, my friend and I decided Russia vs Slovakia was to be done as planned, and we would do our best to enjoy it, despite the apprehension!
Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mouroy isn’t at all central but easy to get to nonetheless. Our train arrived in Lille just before 1pm. The ground can be reached from the centre by taking the Metro (yellow line, all the way to the end) which is a short-walk away at Gard de Lille Flandres. My notes on Euro 2016 will feature a few comments on how badly organised it was; the Lille metro is the first example. Whilst the trains ran on time and were frequent, no preparations whatsoever were made for the increased number of people using the network – the queues for tickets were huge, and it took us over half an hour to get ours.
Fifteen minutes after boarding we arrived at the end of the line; the ground is c. 10 minutes walk from the metro station. And here is the second example of bad organisation. The French police have received significant criticism for their handling of crowds. Whilst there were plenty present looking mean outside the metro station and the ground, if anything were to happen in the walkway between the two, it would probably be five minutes before anybody arrived to control the situation. No security at all present anywhere unless it was a landmark, or there was an opportunity to sit on a bench.
We went through two sets of security before we reached the ground, no stone left unturned seemingly (except, post-Marseille, for the coat of the Russian who got a flare in, the Croats who got dozens of flares in, and the Turks who also got flares in…..)
The ground itself is striking in appearance; a continuous bowl with a razor blade texture on the outside (which I believe lights up at night, but our game was at 3pm, so I didn’t see this for myself). A small fan park had been setup outside selling food and drink and also merchandise; as inside the ground, and to be expected, both were very expensive. Two pints of beer cost €13. I say beer, but Carlsberg have for this tournament provided an incredible 0.5% proof tipple! Now the alcohol content isn’t everything, but when you order a beer, you expect a proper beer! Amazingly there was also a non-alcoholic version!
I feel like I have moaned a lot already, so some positives. The ground inside really is great – very spacious concourses, impressive exterior, and fantastic sight lines. The roof was closed for this match adding to the atmosphere.
Our seats that day were in the upper-tier of the Yellow block (technically the away end) above the noisy Slovakian fans behind the goal. The Slovakian fans really were good value, and in terrific voice. Our own stand included a number of their contingent who obviously couldn’t get tickets via their FA, and also lots of English, French, German and Belgian fans. I even spotted some Dutch and Scots (clearly lost)! The Russians were opposite behind the goal, and markedly much fewer in number compared to their opposition.
The ground wasn’t full though; at 50,000, Stade Pierre-Mouroy isn’t small, but the corporate seats around the middle were largely empty, which felt a shame. That said, this wasn’t a standout group game, so perhaps understandable.
UEFA put on a pre-game opening ceremony (this is done before every game…..) which involves a lot of running around and shouting. On the latter point, shouting is something of a theme at Euro 2016, with over enthusiastic presenters seemingly discovering nirvana when announcing everything including who the third choice goalkeepers are.
But to the game. Russia drew their opener with England. Slovakia lost 2-1 against Wales, and were propping up the group. My own views were that Russia, despite their point, looked the poorest side in the competition, and that Slovakia were slightly unlucky against Wales, who seemed to be riding high on the occasion in their opener (helped by a couple of well-timed substitutions from Chris Coleman). My pre-game prediction was 2-1 to Slovakia.
And I was right….!
Slovakia dominated the first half, and exploited weaknesses in a poor Russian defence (something England couldn’t do in the previous game). Both goals carved open Russia’s back line. Hamsik’s second was sublime and a joy to watch. The game was pretty much won at half-time. The Slovakians were loving it and in cracking voice, helped by the continuous thud of a drum.
Russia came back into it in the second half, but Slovakia looked in control. A goal did however come in the 80th minute, and Russia had a route back into the game. We had decided a few minutes before the goal that we would leave five minutes before the end; this isn’t something I normally do, but we still had concerns following trouble at the weekend, and also had to check into our digs at some point. The appearance of a flare following the Russian goal was frankly quite remarkable given firstly the emphasis on terrorism at this tournament, and also following the use of a flare gun in Russia’s last game. The stewards quickly dealt with it, but we left at that point, not wanting to risk more fun and games.
Upon getting back into town, we took a cab to our apartment near the zoo. Lille was full of English and Welsh fans by this point, many of whom had clearly been on the sauce for some hours. From what we saw it was relatively good-natured at that point (c. 5.45pm), albeit the police had seemingly penned most people into around five pubs near the train station and the main square.
Yes it was good-natured (by the vast majority), but we did see people relieving themselves in the street, and anti-Russian songs seemed to be the order of the day, so it was perhaps not surprising trouble occurred later on. The reasons why are debated at length on the internet; I can only comment on what I saw passing through. All day drinking will invariably lead to trouble at some point.
Apartment sorted, our evening was spent in the very pleasant surroundings of La Guinguette de la Marine, and later on, Le Corfou. Belgian beers were enjoyed from an actual glass (plastic only elsewhere in town) to accompany an amazing pork dish, and the France vs Albania game watched with the locals, with police helicopters hovering in the distance. A nice end (for us) to a day in which we had initially had serious safety concerns. Euro 2016 – so far so good!
Other photos from the day