Portugal 1 Iceland 1 (Euro 2016, 14th June)
I can’t say I had high hopes for St Etienne. It’s not exactly high on the “must see” list of places to visit in France, being a mainly industrial/mining town, 45 minutes by train from its more glamorous neighbour, Lyon. Rail strikes had raised the possibility of not being able to get there at all, although thankfully there were enough services to the city to mean that even if two thirds of them were cancelled, there were still enough.
St Etienne is famous for its football team though, and St Etienne are 10 times winners of the French league, winning it nine times between 1964 and 1981, although 1981 was the last of those wins. Rivals Olympique Lyonnais are relative upstarts, although their seven French titles in row in the 2000s would have turned St Etienne even more green than usual, in envy.
As it turned out, the centre of St Etienne wasn’t too bad, with a few pub/restaurant-laden streets that were sought out by fans, mainly clad in the blue, white and red of Iceland. Quite a few of them sounded surprisingly English, belting out “Gudjohnsson’s on fire, your defence is terrified…” and “We all dream of a team of Sigurdssons”, with just the odd Icelandic chant thrown in for good measure.
Rather than having a new stadium, like their rivals up the road, St Etienne renovated their Stade Geoffroy Guichard, and it was one I was looking forward to. It’s walkable from the centre, although I took the tram. This turned out to be another poor “taking the best route the gate” choice, although it wasn’t entirely my fault. UEFA, in their wisdom, had decided to shut several roads to create hospitality areas, meaning to make the trip of just over a hundred metres from the side of the ground I was on, to the other side, where I needed to be, involved a nearly mile-long detour.
There were more niggles in the ground. It’s a good looking stadium, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until half-time, when I took a stroll to the Iceland end. I had a Category 1 €145 ticket, and while I couldn’t complain about the view of the pitch, the overhang from the upper tier gave me a letterbox view of play, and a lower-tier-only view of the rest of the ground.
If the crowd outside the stadium seemed mainly Icelandic, inside it looked like the Portuguese had the edge in numbers. In terms of possession Portugal definitely had the edge throughout, and when they went ahead I’m sure the press were preparing clichés about “plucky” Iceland. Iceland equalised though, to the delight of the fans, Icelandic or English, and few not wearing red & green shared Cristiano Ronaldo’s “why is the world so cruel to me?” emotions as his injury-time free kick failed to come off.