Ireland 1 Italy 0 (Lille, 22nd June 2016)
The Irish seem to like a drink. I arrived back in Lille at around Midnight, after the Czech v Turkey game down the road in Lens, to find that so much beer had been drunk and spilled in Lille city centre that the pavement felt like one of those 80s pubs with a sticky carpet. A liberal scattering of broken glass and a conspicuous lack of pubs still open made me wonder if there’d been trouble in the town, or maybe Lille police are just a bunch of killjoys taking no chances.
With very few Italian fans about, the city belonged to Ireland, turning the place into a sea of green. Not all were quite the welcome happy-go-lucky stereotype Irish fan though. One, sat at table in a café just off the Grand Place, was feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking to such a degree that he’d slumped sideways in his chair, mouth open, asleep verging on comatose, with the knuckles of one hand dragging on the floor. I’m sure the café owner was delighted to have such a delightful customer at a prominent corner table, advertising the high calibre clientèle his café could attract.
After battling queues at the metro station, with increasing numbers not letting half the ticket machines being broken hold back a hot and sweaty sing-song, the 10 minute walk to the stadium was a cooling relief on a muggy evening. High spirits saw fans try to kick plastic footballs through the high up open windows of a hotel near the stadium. They were subdued a tad by what would thankfully be my last half-hour scrum at a security check-point, before emerging on the concourse of the newly built Stade Pierre Mauroy.
The stadium holds 50,000 but although it looks very smart from the outside, with LEDs along the exterior creating a wall of TV style images, I’d not been too sold on pictures I’d seen of the interior. This was mainly due to the very heavy mechanical roof, which even when open, seemed to overpower the rest of the stadium.
As it turned out aesthetics really weren’t the problem. The roof was shut, which was very disappointing on a sunny evening, but a hot and humid day and a shut roof made for an oppressively warm and humid atmosphere inside the stadium. I’ve been to football in Thailand, Japan, and other tropical places in the far east, and I’m not sure I’ve watched a game anywhere so uncomfortable – I swear there were clouds forming inside by the roof, even if in reality it was probably smoke from a flare.
Whatever the heat, it did nothing to deter the Irish fans in backing their team, with “The Fields of Athenry” blasting out from the three sides of the ground that were predominantly green. They knew they had to win, something which seemed a tough call on paper, with Italy having won their opening two games, and looking quite impressive. Earlier in the evening I’d chatted to an Italy supporter, from Scotland oddly enough, who expected an Irish win. “This is effectively a friendly for Italy, and Italy doesn’t do friendlies” was his take.
How right he was. Not that Italy rolled over and died, but they seemed to have no ambition beyond not losing. For Ireland it was a case of could they make that breakthrough? They never stopped going, an even as time ticked by, you just got that feeling a goal was coming. And come it did, with just five minutes left. Just as fans were probably beginning to wonder if wearing that false ginger beard was not a good look for being picked out by the stadium cameras, despondent, an old-fashioned cross was met head on my Robbie Brady, taking advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy Italian marking, to send the stadium’s large green contingent wild.
A dramatic end to the game, and a fittingly dramatic end to my little six-game tour. The holiday itself would effectively end at about 1 am in brasserie round the corner from my hotel – one of the few central bars still open. A bar where I learned that my appalling schoolboy French is still better than whatever they teach in Ireland, and that if you ask for a “glass of vin rouge” in a northern (English) accent, the similarity between “glass” and the french word “glace” (ice) causes no end of confusion. Then again, as an Englishman, I’d spent the last few nights cheering for Wales and Ireland, and that’s probably confusing enough.