Heart Of Football

Euro 2016: Victory for sport as Paris prepares curtain call

We stand on the eve of utter relief.

If tonight's European Championship final at the Stade de France passes off without a terrorist act, then regardless of who triumphs on the field, mankind will be the real winner.

This is the 51st game in a month of often far from sparkling football.

Paris is understandably waiting until it's over. Whether Les Bleus win again - as they did on home soil in Michel Platini's era in 1984, and in the World Cup of Zinedine Zidane in 1998 - or whether Portugal comes through for its maiden trophy at senior international level is almost beside the point.

What will be more celebrated would be the safe passage of a tournament that attracted 2.4 million spectators to the stadiums, and almost as enthralling 3.6 millions to the Fan Zones, the biggest of which was the 85,000 capacity space at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

And if Iceland's distinctive Viking thunderclap is now being emulated by the French, it is the Welsh esprit de corps (the Together, Stronger motto) that will outlive any notion of beautiful football here. Rob Hughes

Think of it.

Think of how this started, in the shadow of the Paris terrorist atrocities last November and the Brussels repeat three months ago.

The French sports paper L'Equipe summed it up, then and now. Its front page after the mass murders of November was a black sheet dominated by a solitary word: L'Horreur.

On Friday, the morning after France beat Germany 2-0 to reach this finale, the front page was a picture of joy, Les Bleus celebrating. Again, one word: L'Extase.

The horror and the ecstasy, indeed.

I would be fearful of writing the second headline until the final is fulfilled. Yes, of course, the whole of France waits and hopes that Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud (or anyone in blue) gets the job done.

Surely, France harbours fears (but in a strictly sporty way) that Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Nani or the new kid on the block Renato Sanches won't spoil the party.

But this is so much the year of the underdog that, if it happens, even the French might embrace it. No-one in the stadium tonight can emulate Leicester City's 5,000-1 shot by winning the English Premier League so unexpectedly.

Not even Iceland's irrepressible outsiders, nor Wales' valiant team, truly did a Leicester by going all the way. But we will remember them, and their have-a-go spirit that ran like a lief motif through this tournament until they were eliminated.

In truth, that could happen only because Uefa's expansion of the Euros to 24 teams in this tournament lowered the standards.

Portugal demonstrated that by reaching the knockout phase without winning or losing a game, just hanging in there, expending the least energy, and not bothering about the entertainment value.

Yet when CR7 decided it was time to rise (with the leap that he achieves, the way he hangs in the air almost in defiance of gravity) and when Nani rose with him, we found that the Portuguese knew their purpose all along. They outlasted teams such as Spain, Italy, Germany and (oh dear, we do have to mention them) England and might yet go all the way.

But another headline along the French journey also captured the spirit of France as a nation finally letting its hair down and its hopes rise. "Le Jour de Gloire" it stated, a replay on the L'Equipe front page of 1993 when Olympique Marseille won the Champions League.

Not by chance was Marseille, the port city in the south of the country, the venue for Thursday's French triumph over the world champions, Germany.

Marseille breathes football in a way that most of France, certainly Paris, does not. The port is in many respects different from French culture, or French sophistication.

And of the 10 stadiums that benefit financially from the upgrade this mammoth European tournament was designed to bring, none is better shaped or more football-orientated than Marseille's.

The Stade Velodrome, so named because cycling championships were held there, has had refits whenever France hosts football. It started with the 1938 World Cup, was rebuilt extensively for the 1998 World Cup, and looks magnifique beneath its new undulating fibre glass roof in 2016.

How ironic, then, that the streets of Marseille were the battle ground for drunken English oafs and hardcore Russia thugs before the first game there last month. And, despite Uefa's claim that there were no major incidents, only "rapidly controlled disturbances" during the England-Russia game, the French judiciary felt otherwise.

They, to their credit, rounded up the main culprits and jailed and/or deported some to England and more to Moscow despite Vladimir Putin appearing to congratulate his comrades for being tougher than the English.

And to think that we are two years off a World Cup in Russia.

Away from that dark thought, and back to the Euros, it is regrettable that Uefa congratulates itself on the new format. It means that just less than half the 54 member nations of Europe all qualified for the tournament. With only eight dropping out after the group stage, even finishing third was a triumph.

And that, surely, influenced the play in a negative sense. The group stage games yielded a miserly average of less than two goals per game (and too many 0-0 draws). The knockout stages increased to 2.71 goals per game, but with some surprising eliminations along the way of Spain, Croatia and (second mention) England.

For sure, we loved the Icelandic "small fish" and the Welsh dragon fire. How their people celebrated the homecoming heroes. And if Iceland's distinctive Viking thunderclap is now being emulated by the French, it is the Welsh esprit de corps (the Together, Stronger motto) that will outlive any notion of beautiful football here.

Together, Stronger is perhaps the people's answer to the cloud of terror that hung over the Euros at the start. There was even talk, hollow, unwanted talk, of shutting out the audience and playing this championship in a vacuum of empty stadiums.

That would be the end of spectator sport as we know it.

Tonight, when the final is in full sway and some 51 cameras including helicopter cameras and spider cams and super slow motion cameras bring you the final game, look around the audience.

Their joy and despair will mean as much, if not more, than whether Paul Pogba wins a decisive challenge or some poor unfortunate defender deflects a loose ball into his own goal.

Ultimately, the glory of the game is the rapport between players and fans with, one hopes, no cause to disrespect the man in the middle who tonight just happens to be referee Mark Clattenburg.

Who says the English all left the party early?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'Victory for sport as Paris prepares for curtain call'. Print Edition | Subscribe