The tepid draw in St Etienne meant England would travel down to Nice to face the mighty Iceland, who were likely to be represented by a healthy proportion of their 350,000 population. I didn’t have a ticket yet, but had every intention of purchasing one. Step one was to get there and our plan was to hitchhike. Arthur is a great fan of this, me less so. Arthur sure can sell an idea though, so I gave in and accepted that maybe it would add to the entertainment of the journey.
We said our goodbyes to our wonderful host Cedric, and off we went with a piece of cardboard, setting off to the closest motorway junction to commence the 5 hour, 475km journey. Rather painlessly we were already in our first car after less than 30 minutes. The driver spoke no English and we managed to bumble through with a few words of French between us. This really did make me realise I’d forgotten all of my A-Level French, mais c’est la vie. We travelled a reasonable distance to a service station, where we started asking every friendly looking driver: ‘Bonjour, parlez-vous Anglais?’ Anything more positive that ‘non’ and we would switch immediately to English, the rest got a simple ‘merci’. Many of the French seemed enthusiastic and positive, but sadly their journeys just didn’t align with ours.
Next came a quite unbelievable coincidence. I happened to see a couple of blokes looking slightly less sophisticated than the locals. On approaching, I saw a Man City tattoo on the leg and thought: ‘At least I don’t have to try in French’.
‘Alrite lads, how are you guys travelling? Don’t suppose you got any space in your car?’
Without so much as looking up, he pointed over to a third man approaching and said: ‘Ask him, it’s his van.’
As the man got closer, he looked rather familiar.
Random Man: ‘I know you?’
Random Man: ‘Manaus!’
Kieron: ‘Fuuuckin ‘elll!’
Within 5 minutes, we were in the back of this Kieron’s motorhome – 5 lads and a huge dog. Finally Kieron had some evidence of the stories he’d told about Brazil that his mates hadn’t believed. We sat recounting stories and listening to new ones of this tournament. Kieron and his pals had a rather impressive skill of getting into stadiums without tickets, and then often using their elusive skills to end up in press rooms or VIP sections; basically, anywhere they shouldn’t be. This was music to Arthur’s ears as he was studying a masters and doing a dissertation on ‘Security at the Euros’. He’d met the main man. Kieron showed us his collection of VIP passes from previous games and photographer’s bibs, as he recounted how he ended up on the periphery of the pitch for the England vs Wales game with nothing but an iPhone, before deciding to jump into a section of Welsh fans much to their amusement. Now I like to take all opportunities available and see where life takes you, but this guy was something else.
These guys were not completing the full journey today and were planning to chill for a few days nearby, so we parted company at a service station and set about finding the next lift after a quick pit stop. We were fortunate as that evening Sweden were playing Belgium in Nice as well, so if we could get there in time I had a friend waiting with a ticket. And just was our luck, we happened to spot a group of Flemish (more or less Dutch) speaking Belgians. Arthur approached them and after a short exchange in Dutch/Flemish, we had our next leg organised. We set off in their car, squeezed in with these 3 blokes probably in their late 40s. Obviously in a great frame of mind having one of the best teams in the tournament, the songs were flowing with the guy in the back continually screaming out the window on the motorway. Good times, they were heading directly to the stadium so this was to be a simple end to the day and I would have plenty of time to find my friend and pick up my ticket.
We parked up and made the long walk to the Allianz Arena, a relatively new stadium way out of town with no bars for miles, understandably reducing its popularity with the locals and not an ideal thought ahead of the England game. Given Arthur’s beloved Netherlands failed to make the tournament, he was trying to get into as many games as possible for as little as possible. This had worked wonderfully so far, getting in last minute to several games including England vs Slovakia for less than £30.
Sadly, this was to be a step too far, as two wealthy and passionate nations met for what was potentially the final international game in the career of Sweden’s finest ever player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Tickets were going for hundreds of euros, so off I went and left Arthur to relax outside for the next 2 hours.
A fairly decent game with a great atmosphere, decided by a great strike from Radji Naingolan in the favour of the Belgians, meant the curtain finally closed on what was a wonderful international career for the enigmatic Zlatan. The game certainly whetted the appetite for England’s upcoming tie with Iceland.
One small problem we did have that evening was accommodation. Due to being on the road most of the day and watching the game in the evening, we’d had little internet time, all hotels seemed to have sold out due to the game, and despite many couchsurfing requests sent from us both, we had no successful replies. So off we went into the centre of Nice with suitcase in tow, thinking:
‘Sod it, let’s have a beer and see what happens.’
Many Belgians and Swedes were enjoying the cool evening on the French Riviera, so we found a spot amongst them and grabbed some food before closing. Drinking options were now reduced, so we wandered around and found a good lively pub still open. A couple of beers later it was once again closing and we found ourselves back in the alleyways of Nice city centre. A small off licence and a few other stragglers provided a little more light entertainment, until about 4am when we accepted our fate that no solution had presented itself during the evening. Being the height of summer, it wasn’t the worst solution to make our way down to the cobbled beach. With a suitcase for a pillow, this was the perfect spot to catch some sleep just before the sun rose.
The tranquillity of my sleep was abruptly disturbed by what can only be described as a lifeguard patrolling the beach with a water cannon and a loudspeaker. I had no idea this was a thing, but it quickly woke me up and set me on my way. This put pay to my fledgling plan of coming to Nice if I ever ended up homeless, and made me realise why we were the only ones sleeping on the beach. After a short stroll, I decided I would blend in as a sunbather amongst the enthusiastic morning runners catching the sun before the heat took hold. So off the top came and I was no longer a vagrant, now a holidaymaker. Sadly though, even the 8am sunshine was too much for me, so it was off to McDonalds for some wi-fi while waiting for check in at the hotel.
By the time I’d woken after a nice long nap, I discovered we were sharing a room with the loudest snorer ever from Poland. He was already drinking vodka from the bottle in the early afternoon, while muttering incomprehensible English. As well as our new Polish friend, we were rooming with a few nice Americans. After a little chat with these guys, another unbelievable coincidence occurred. It turns out the American dude recognised me from his girlfriend’s holiday pics, as we had shared a hostel in Buenos Aires some three months previous. It never ceases to amaze me how small the world can be sometimes.
Off we went for a bit of a stroll around the delights of Nice, which looked stunning in the setting sun. Full of beautiful, sophisticated people strolling up and down the promenade – not sure I quite fitted that bill in my scruffy shorts and haggard walking boots. As the evening went on, we enjoyed a few beers in one of the stuffiest nightclubs I’ve ever been to. This gave us the perfect excuse for an early night and a little dip in the sea on the way home, to be fresh for the big game the following day. The main highlight however was bumping into a crowd of English fans who seemed to be circling this giant of a man. As I got closer the song ‘Tyson Fury’s having a party’ explained the identity of the giant and the reason for the furore. Great to see one of the country’s ‘elite’ athletes out supporting the national team.
The next morning I woke early and headed into town in search of a ticket for the match. Ticket touting is an interesting little game. Here I was in the main square trying to keep an eye out for who is selling, whilst trying not to look so desperate as to get ripped off. This was my lucky day. A local man caught my eye, so I approached him asking for tickets. It works both ways, so he was also a little wary of me as well. After a brief exchange I was pleased to discover his only concern was that I was to go to the game myself and that I was not just trying to make money. I easily convinced him of this and the deal was done, face value – perfect. He was also going to the game, as a man who had spent some of his formative years in England he had a real love for the Three Lions and would be supporting passionately. He was so pleased England had been drawn to play here, and was excited at the prospect of sharing the experience with an Englishman. It’s these kind of experiences that make travelling with England that little bit more rewarding.
Now that the ticket was sorted I had time to relax, enjoy the atmosphere, and head down towards the bars. I bumped into some Austrian guys who we had met a day or so earlier. Again, these guys were passionate England followers who admired the style with which England fans support their team. As usual, the large St George’s Cross flags adorned the perimeter of the bars, the fans were in full voice, and the beer was flowing. One unfortunate local driver made the mistake of trying to drive through the crowd in his Nissan Micra. Within 10 seconds his boot was open and within a minute he had two fans on the top of his car. In fairness he took it all rather calmly and left as soon as the opportunity arose, albeit with a severely dented roof.
We jumped on the free buses to the stadium, taking it in turns to pick a song, rocking the bus, and building up the atmosphere as the adrenaline began to flow. All the while the Icelandic fans sat calmly looking like they were on their commute to work. Because of this, I was expecting the atmosphere to be strongly in England’s favour once inside the stadium. As usual, we bumped into Kieron and his friends pre-match, and despite already being rather intoxicated, he set off to find some vodka some 20 minutes before kick-off. I left him to it and made my way to the stadium.
I took my seat next to my new French friend, who presented me with an England t-shirt and then proceeded to film me the whole way through my passionate rendition of God Save the Queen.
The game couldn’t have got off to a better start, when Rooney converted a penalty won after a foul on Raheem Sterling. England had shown signs of potential during the tournament and after scoring within 4 minutes of kick-off, I was quietly hopeful that we could play them off the park and make a statement to the rest of the teams in the tournament.
That optimism lasted a whole 2 minutes. Iceland reacted brilliantly to going behind and found themselves level before the celebrations had even stopped. As the dust settled, I kept looking over to the English fans behind the goal and my newfound friend suggested I should go and join them. It was hard to resist, so off I went. As I made my way round behind the stands, I heard a roar go up and again there was that nervous moment as I waited to see who had scored. Given the proximity of the England fans, it didn’t take me long to work it out. In the space of 14 minutes I’ve gone from hoping we would be making a strong statement to the rest of the competition, to now fearing the most embarrassing England performance in my lifetime.
Those quiet, relaxed Iceland fans I mentioned on the bus earlier couldn’t have been any different in the stadium. They were inspirational. Buoyed by the on-pitch performance and desire, this was matched by every one of their fans who supported like their lives depended on it. This was the first time I and many had witnessed the now world-famous Thunderclap. Like warriors preparing for battle, the ever-increasing speed and volume of the claps was nothing short of intimidating for England and motivational for their players. Contrast this to the groans, aggression and vitriol being dished out to the England players from their own supporters, as tackles were lost and passes were continually misplaced or going sideways. Roy had run out of ideas, and the players too. Their confidence was shot to pieces, and anyone who knows the first thing about human nature knows that abuse and negativity will not bring that back. Sadly, the majority of fans in the stadium that day couldn’t get their heads around this concept and thought that the continual abuse was the right tact. Despite the majority of possession, England did indeed fall to what some say was their biggest ever failure. The players left the pitch to boos in rather unsavoury scenes, even when coming to applaud and apologise to the travelling fans, they were waved away and abused.
Overall, it was a sad day. I fully understand why fans expect big performances from the players – they are paid ludicrous amounts of money and have the world at their feet, but the reality is that football and life is not that simple. In my opinion, the England fans were too quick to turn on players. Harry Kane, who had just finished top scorer in the Premier League, looked more like a scared child out there that day. Just when the players needed the right sort of support to inspire them to stage a comeback, they were let down. A lot can be taken from the smaller teams like Iceland, where the sole objective is to give their whole support for 90 minutes, regardless of the actions on the pitch.
After the game I sat for half an hour in a stadium now empty but for one small corner of the ground where the Iceland fans – their Prime Minister amongst them – were celebrating the greatest sporting moment in their country’s history. Fair play to them, both players and fans got exactly what they deserved and they’d go on to face France in Paris in the next round. For me though this was possibly the saddest part of all. This game would have been an incredible experience. Possibly hundreds of thousands of England fans would have travelled to play the favourites and host nation; sadly, this wasn’t to be and Iceland would get to enjoy their day out instead.
As I had hung around for some time, I ended up sharing the bus back to the city with the Iceland fans. To my great surprise it was as if nothing had happened. The atmosphere was similar to when they arrived. It was as if they had turned up to do a job, done it brilliantly, and were now off home to rest. A very surreal experience all round.
This defeat brought both England’s and my own interest in the tournament to an end. I made my way back up to Paris, where I sold my remaining tickets to an elated Welshman, which served a nice reminder that although the last few weeks ended in abject failure for us, there were many dreams fulfilled and memories of a lifetime made for others like the fans of Wales and Iceland.
On arrival back home, my Dad’s main focus was on the violence rather than the football:
‘You’re not going to go to Russia are you?’