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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Not even French unions can put a dampener on the Green Army's fun-filled parade through Paris

Dermot Bolger in Paris
Dermot Bolger in Paris
Republic of Ireland supporter Scott D'Arcy, from Ballyfermot, Co. Dublin, with Sweden supporters in Montmartre. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland supporters in Montmartre at UEFA Euro 2016 in Paris, France. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

I have more reason than most Irish fans to take care this evening when Ireland play Sweden in the Stade de France.

The last time I travelled to see Ireland play Sweden, in 2013, I was press-ganged into becoming the grand marshal of the Stockholm St Patrick's Day parade next afternoon.

The Swedish authorities used interesting tactics to curb any possibility of excessive high spirits or hooliganism at that game.

Reaching the stadium involved a 20-minute trudge through snow-filled streets 0dull enough to make Borris-in-Ossory feel like Sodom and Gomorrah. The stadium's roof was closed and some Swedish fans were dressed as if going to the opera.

Hostility

The Stade de France's roof, thankfully, doesn't close over - it might not cope with the noise being made tonight by Irish fans. The friendly Swedish supporters I've met around Notre Dame and Montmartre have cast off any Nordic restraints and, like the Normans centuries ago, some seem to have become more Irish than the Irish themselves.

The only hostility I've encountered was from one small band of Northern Ireland fans en route to Nice to play Poland last night. But they were more like teenagers heading to their first Wes disco than the English football hooligans in Marseille currently making their unique contribution to the Brexit debate.

The only people who occasionally appear to have a surly indifference towards the tournament are the French unions. As a fan, you feel like an obscure cousin invited to a family party where the host's offspring are determined to make life as difficult for their parents by making life hard for you.

Bagatelle could reprise their famous hit about "summer in Dublin and the Liffey as it stank like hell" as an anthem for narrow streets around Irish bars, like Corcoran's Irish pub on the Rue Saint-Andre des Arts, which overflowed with rubbish sacks. Bins were not collected for days due to one of many strikes reflecting the sour mood in France.

We Irish want to party, but French unions know that, with the world watching, this is the perfect time to pressurise their government.

An Irish fan in McBride's Irish Pub on Rue St Denis told me he suffered a panic attack before boarding the plane to get here due to the threat of terrorism.

He wants to reach the stadium as quickly as possible, enjoy the match and get back to his hotel. He is avoiding congested sites like fanzones.

On this trip I've had journeys cancelled due to the train drivers' strikes. Fans here with friends arriving on Air France flights don't know if they'll reach Paris in time. There's even a stand-off between the government and unions over the number of trains available to get fans to and from the Stade de France.

As the Irish fan in McBride's said: "No government can fully control terrorism, but after the panic I felt about coming here, the last thing I need is to be stuck in Gare de Nord or at the Stade de France in a massive crowd unable to go anywhere."

Romantic

Others are more sanguine about any difficulties, like Galway native Joseph Ruane, from Mountbellow, who was drinking in the aptly named Galway Irish pub on Quai des Grands Augustins. He's in France with five friends from Lucan. They only have tickets for two of the games, but are relying on the Irish grapevine for tickets for the third.

For a seasoned fan like Tony Considine, today is a well-earned chance to savour the romantic Parisian streets, having staunchly supported Ireland on epic qualifying campaign journeys through numerous deeply unromantic eastern European cities.

A veteran of Poland and of Japan and Korea 14 years ago, Considine surveyed joyous pre-match scenes outside O'Sullivan's pub, opposite the Moulin Rouge, and hoped that tonight's game will live up to expectations.

"We know that as fans we'll definitely enjoy ourselves," he said, "but I'm desperate to see the team perform as well as they can, unlike what happened in Poland.

"While the group isn't as hard as four years ago, it's still as tough as we could have got. A lot depends on which version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic turns up tonight.

"But given how strongly we finished the qualifying campaign, I'm hopeful we can get something tonight to take with us on our journey to Bordeaux."

As fans, we've done our homework on every hostel, Airbnb and campsite near Paris. We never knew we'd have to do our homework on French labour law too, but for today at least nothing will spoil the party.

Maybe if France win the tournament, Avenue des Champs-Elysees will become "black, blanc, beur", like after their 1998 World Cup win.

But tonight the famous thoroughfare will be "green, green, green".

Let's hope we'll be singing with equal fervour when the final whistle blows.

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