Euro 2016: 6 days to go

More to expanded event than just football

France gets ready to host Europe's biggest football event, with the memory of November's Paris terrorist attacks still fresh. The threat of terrorism remains, but with over 2.5 million fans expected, France will be hoping that football takes centre stage.

The Euro 2016 tournament in France is less than one week away.

Everyone is invited, bar Michel Platini, one of the nation's great football idols and, until the Fifa scandal hit the fan, the president of the European Union of Football.

Under Platini's eight-year reign as Uefa president, his home country was granted the Euro which will, this time, be a hugely expanded affair amounting to 24 national teams playing in a total of 51 games in 10 stadiums from June 10 to July 10.

Irony, and something more fearful, abounds.

From Uefa and from the French Interior Ministry, there have been defiant messages that the show goes on, regardless. France will not blink, cannot afford to blink, in the face of terrorism that killed 130 people in the capital last November.

Uefa wants not only Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and some 550 other top footballers to play the games, and not only the fans with tickets, but also anybody else who wants to come and savour the atmosphere of bonhomie around big screens in the designated fan zones near the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks around the country.

The splendour of Platini's tournament in 1984, when he led Les Bleus to victory in the Euro, is still fresh in my memory. The wonder of Zinedine Zidane heading France so triumphantly in the 1998 World Cup final, also in Paris, is still vibrant.

So why should anyone even question that the French can do this, on and off the pitches?

These are not my questions alone. The United States' State Department issued a warning this week to its citizens about the "risk of potential terrorist attacks throughout Europe, targeting major events".

Michel Cadot, the chief of police in Paris, has written to the French Interior Minister about the exhaustion of police officers dealing with the threat of terror.

Two suicide bombers who targeted the France versus Germany friendly in November bungled the attempt and blew themselves up outside the Stade the night of the atrocities on bars, cafes and a rock concert in Paris. But other members of the ISIS terror gang specifically stated that the Euro is on their agenda.

Even so, and even though Platini is persona non grata and forbidden to attend the event in any official capacity following revelations that he accepted a 2 million Swiss francs (S$2.78 million) payment from Fifa, the Uefa executive committee and the head of the French Football Federation send out assurances that everybody else is welcome at the street parties and the stadiums.

Dear oh dear. What is it that these officials do not understand about the sanctity of life, and the role of sport in our lives?

There is the line that we cannot submit to threat, and another that we must not play into the hands of terrorism.

One problem with that is the deep memory that I also have of Paris 1998. Or more specifically, of the joy down the Champs Elysees when people of all races and backgrounds celebrated the victory of Les Bleus.

A victory, remember, of a team who were called the Bleu-blanc-beur because of their racial mix of black, white and Arab cultures. Zidane, no less, is from a family who settled in Marseille after migrating from Algeria.

And St Denis, the area north of Paris where the national stadium was built, is and was a largely immigrant settlement area. Again, how I remember the eloquence of a young woman, a bar owner in St Denis, who told me on the eve of a game there that no one of her acquaintance had a ticket.

Did she feel excluded? "When Zizou is playing for Les Bleus," she answered, referring to Zidane's popular name. "We are more French than the French."

Her bar was full to overflowing that night of local people watching the game on TV.

St Denis was also the area where the police tracked down some of those responsible for the horrors of last November.

Roll forward to today, and to the conflicting messages from the chief of police and Monsieur Noel le Graet. He is a businessman and politician, and president of the French Football Federation.

"Here we are!" Le Graet writes in the official magazine for the tournament. "Uefa 2016 is finally upon us. France loves football.

"Now is the challenge to deliver the organisation and hospitality of the highest standard. We know how to do this and France is ready to accommodate the 2.5 million spectators expected during the tournament."

As he, and Uefa officials, drive in their guarded limousines, the message is to enjoy the "safe and festive fun".

Let's see if we can.

Let's look forward to the teams that the bookmakers rank as favourites to win the tournament - France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and England in that order. Let's share with the minnows, Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales for whom this is their first Euro.

That, in a way, was what Platini had in mind when he opened up the event to 24 finalists, very nearly half the total number of nations who helped vote him into office.

Whether you suspect this waters down the standard of entry, or gives the little guys like Iceland (population 330,000) the chance to come to the party, is open to personal view.

Suffice to say that this is the year of Leicester City trouncing the big wigs of the English Premier League. And the Euro is the tournament won in 1992 by Danes who were invited only at 11 days' notice after the United Nations sanctioned Yugoslavia which was on the brink of breaking apart through ethnic warfare.

That tournament in 1992 had just eight countries. This one has three times that. And the idea of expansion hasn't finished yet because Gianni Infantino, the former Uefa general secretary, has recently become head of Fifa by promising, among other things, to expand the World Cup to 40 finalist nations.

Ever bigger, ever more strain on resources to host and to safeguard.

That may be human instinct, but sport and the environment in which it is played are at stake. In the last few days, Karim Benzema has been expounding on the reasons for his exclusion from the French team.

He is, by far, the top scorer (with 27 goals from 81 caps) of the current French team. He is excluded because he is accused of being involved in planning to blackmail a national team colleague, Mathieu Valbuena, over a sex tape.

The Spanish sports daily Marca this week asked Benzema, who is of Algerian descent, whether he agreed with the comment by Eric Cantona that there was a racist motive behind excluding him.

Benzema said he did not think the national coach Didier Deschamps was racist, but that "he has folded to the pressure from the racist part of France".

A football festival? If only it were that simple.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'More to expanded event than just football'. Print Edition | Subscribe