Andy Mitten’s Euro 2016 diary: Atmosphere is just the ticket for Northern Ireland and their many fans

Ticket touts may not be happy but fans with winning teams are enjoying the atmosphere, coffee with no milk aside. Andy Mitten writes from Lyon.
Tickets have not been difficult to come by at Euro 2016. Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay
Tickets have not been difficult to come by at Euro 2016. Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay

The Northern Ireland fans spilled out of the Metro at the end of the line by Lyon’s huge new stadium.

Once again, rainclouds loomed over the city, as they had for the previous game between Italy and Belgium.

Once again, fans walking towards the 60,000-seat venue were met with dozens of people offering match tickets for a fraction of face value.

“One ticket, €10,” shouted a man with a desperate look.

There were no takers. The market is flooded with tickets and demand for the vast majority of Euro 2016 games is low.

The crowds are high. The games are almost all sell-outs.

Uefa will rightly claim this as a triumph, especially when compared to previous tournaments.

In England 20 years ago for Euros ’96, games were played in front of stadiums that were two-thirds full, even in the great football cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

Interest was nowhere near as high as for club football.

In France, the only obvious blocks of empty seats are in the corporate sections. If you are the boss of a marketing department for a large multi-national, the allure of taking your clients to Czech Republic against Croatia at Saint-Etienne is limited. During France ’98, the ticket touts thrived because of a shortage of supply. Many veteran touts claim it was the greatest-ever tournament they covered, with significant numbers of Japanese and American tourists helping pump up the market as tickets went for 10 times the face value. The 2006 World Cup in Germany was similar.

Now, the touts are struggling.

“A fear of terrorism, a weaker European economy than 10 years ago and it’s not got the allure of the World Cup,” explained one tout at Lyon. “Plus, there are a lot of games in stadiums with increased capacities and the tickets are already expensive.”

The tickets are priced in three categories for the group games – €55 (Dh 227), €80, €105 and €145.

The biggest price bracket is the €145 tickets along the side of the pitch. They are the ones that Uefa guide fans to when they applied online. This writer applied for nine tickets and received six Category 1 tickets and three Category 2.

Given that €1,000 per month is a regular working-class wage in southern European countries such as Spain and Italy, those prices are well beyond the reach of the working-class football fan.

Highlights are few for those working the streets in the secondary ticket market.

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Demand exceeds supply for games featuring the Republic of Ireland and England.

That England and Wales was played at a small 35,000 capacity stadium in Lens, a venue only two hours from London, increased demand further.

Tickets were selling for €500.

They are the exceptions in the group stages.

Newspapers wrote of tens of thousands of England fans heading to Marseille without tickets, just as they had headed to Germany a decade ago.

It wasn’t true. Tickets were not difficult to obtain for face value because a massive 40,000 allocation took all the demand from the market.

Every game this writer has attended has seen tickets outside for face value or less.

Uefa will not be too concerned, for they have already sold the tickets. They are also clever how they position fans. They charge the lowest prices for the most colourful fans who are following their teams around.

They are positioned around the corner flags opposite the main television cameras for a greater TV spectacle as viewers see a wall of colour.

On Thursday at Lyon, there was the yellow of Ukraine to the left of the camera and the green of Northern Ireland to the right.

When hailstones stopped play in the second half, scores of Ukraine fans took their shirts off and began dancing behind the goal. The Northern Irish, 20,000 strong, sang the song that has become so popular in Britain it has been recorded and sits at No 7 in the charts.

“Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified,” they sing, a song borrowed from fans of Grigg’s club, Wigan Athletic.

It’s adapted from Gala’s 1997 dance classic Freed from Desire.

Grigg, a handful of a centre forward who never stops working for his team, was a late call up after fine form in England’s third tier helped Wigan get promoted.

He is yet to show how on fire he is, for he has not played a minute for Northern Ireland in the competition. That has not stopped fans singing about the shy 24 year old from Birmingham.

The 2-0 victory for Northern Ireland at Lyon was one of the greatest moments in recent Northern Irish football.

They are now in a strong position to advance to the last 16, though they play world champions Germany in their final group game.

Their fans are making a lot of friends around France, with their songs about not being Brazil.

Almost all of them seem to wear the green shirts of their team, with the majority of followers from a Protestant background in a country of 1.7 million, where Catholics and Protestants are roughly equal in number.

There are an increasing number of Catholic fans following the national team, a change from 20 years ago.

Religion was not an issue as they all celebrated on Thursday night in central Lyon.

“I’m pinching myself,” said delighted fan Neil Templeton of East Belfast. “Is this heaven?”

The mood was only dampened by the news that a second fan had died following the team.

Robert Rainey, 62, suffered a heart attack watching his team at Lyon. That followed on from the death of Darren Rodgers, 24, who died after a fall at Nice on Monday.

Fans applauded throughout the 24th minute of the game against Ukraine, with fans of Ukraine joining in.

Fans didn’t know of the death as they celebrated with their players after the 2-0 win, when players hugged their children on the pitch.

The celebrations lasted long into the night in France’s second city and they began to slowly reappear in the centre of Lyon the morning.

At the main Lyon train station, a fan remonstrated at an information counter that he did not want to go to the Gare de Lyon as he was already in the Gare de Lyon.

“No,” explained the helper. “The Gare de Lyon is in Paris. You are going to Paris. The next game of Northern Ireland is in Paris.”

The man walked back to his friends and explained the situation. “If you think that’s bad, that bar has just tried to sell me a coffee without milk,” protested one friend. “How can you have coffee without milk?”

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Published: June 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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