Now that FIFA and UEFA have surrendered big tournaments to television, Euro 2016 will be the last of its kind: a cockeyed carnival of revelry, pageantry, and celebration.
The sight of sulking nuns in the morning was disconcerting. There they were, a gaggle of figures entirely in black, standing on the train as it pulled out of Lisbon. Their seats had been taken by groggy English, Italian, and Danish supporters. The nuns looked highly annoyed, tut-tutting and desperately trying to stay upright as the train picked up speed. The supporters slept.
Eventually a young woman tried to assist the nuns. She poked gingerly at a sleeping man in an England shirt, curled up, asleep. She poked at the R in the Rooney name on the back of his shirt. He shifted position. The young woman said loudly and firmly, “Excuse me, is this your seat?” The man uncurled slowly, gazed up at her, and said, “I dunno, darling. Is it yours?” All the nuns stared. One giggled.
That was in the opening days of Euro 2004 in Portugal, my first Euro tournament. It spoiled me, that one. Portugal was the ideal host country. Ten venues in eight cities. You could get from one to another in a couple of hours on the train. I’d been in South Korea and Japan for the World Cup in 2002, and there it was usually a plane, a day’s travel, and huge complications to move around the tournament. In Portugal I saw the magic festivity of a tournament unfold as it should.
Huge armies of supporters in their colorful regalia were moving ceaselessly from one city to the next: Trains, buses, and subway trains packed with them. Amused and awed locals. Singing, chanting always in the air. Impromptu parties stopping traffic. A ball appearing out of nowhere and the rush to play, tipsy or sober. The ball bouncing away and a local woman, out shopping, kicking it back. The energy of it, the strange, benign madness that adds a bewitching extra ingredient to the matches. The results, the uncoiling of the fixed schedule of the group games and fraughtness of the knock-out matches. One country obsessed with football for a month. No cynicism or apathy; no stadiums half empty at kickoff, but packed with happy people and the streets around filling and then emptying over and over with surging masses. It’s exhausting and it’s the best, sexiest experience ever.
The Euro 2016 in France will be the last such tournament. The last great one: 10 venues, with two in Paris, every city easily reachable from anywhere you land in France. After France, for the foreseeable future, there will be no more cockeyed carnivals of revelry, pageantry, and celebration.
The 2020 Euro will be pan-European, held in 13 cities across 12 countries from Baku, Azerbaijan, in the east, to Dublin, in the west. Getting around is barely feasible. Supporters will go to one city and stop there, briefly. Only millionaires will be able to undertake the journey from a group game in Baku or St. Petersburg, Russia, to a knock-out match in Glasgow, Scotland or Bilbao, Spain.
Before that, the 2018 World Cup will be in Russia. In terms of feasibility, it might as well be on Mars. It’s 1,452 miles from St. Petersburg to Sochi. Only FIFA officials and Russian oligarchs will be on a tournament roundabout. And then, Qatar in 2022: A winter World Cup in a place nobody wants to visit. A host country endorsed by a now disgraced FIFA regime. Air-conditioned stadiums in the desert. A World Cup tainted in advance by corruption allegations, human rights violations, and the deaths of migrant workers. A World Cup nobody expects to savor.
What FIFA and UEFA have done is surrender the Euro and the World Cup to television, the narcissism of their own officials, and that of the hosts. The principle of a tournament as a celebration of football, attended by the masses and emphatically about the visceral popularity of the most cherished sport on the planet, has been abandoned. Away from the tawdry circus of arrests, indictments, and resignations, the terrible reality is that the World Cup and Euro tournaments have opted out of festivity.
The World Cup in France in 1998 is where the modern tournament was begun. The Euro ’16 in France is where it will most likely end. Starting with the 1998 tournament, it became stunningly easy to attend and experience the World Cup without having a ticket to a single game. Huge areas in host cities were set aside for visiting fans to show up, eat, drink, party, and watch the game on giant screens. This became the norm, and at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in 2002, at Euro 2004 in Portugal, the World Cup in Germany in 2006, and Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, the tournaments became something vaster than anything that could be transmitted in TV reports of individual games. Millions of people poured into the host nations, and only a fraction actually attended the games. Figures from the 2006 World Cup in Germany are staggering. A total of 3,359,439 spectators attended 64 games in the 12 stadiums. But some 18 million spectators watched the games at the Fan Festival sites in Germany. (At those, by the way, 3.5 million liters of beer were sold, along with 1.75 million liters of nonalcoholic drinks and 3.5 million sausages.) And, really, it’s the one-country event that matters—where the revelry ignites the tournament, and the bliss of mass, childish fun is the key to that ignition.
On that day in Portugal, the nuns got off the train at Fatima, where there’s a Catholic shrine. They declined to wave at the supporters, now awake, staring out at them. But maybe they knew they had encountered something unearthly—the joy bringers, the convivial but uncouth masses having a sort-of religious experience of their own in a festival of internationalism. When the train arrived in Porto and the various supporters set off for their hotels or the stadium, or continued on to Guimarães or Braga, the Danes were the slowest to amble out. All the taxis were gone from the station entrance, and the bus to the stadium had left, too. So they stood and started singing. Hundreds of them, men and women, in their red Denmark shirts, sang to the street, to the city outside. Traffic stopped, people emerged from stores and homes to look and listen. It seemed to me that a ragtag army from one corner of Europe had arrived in another and was saying hello in a mass singsong. It was near holy in its power.
I remember Germany and the 2006 World Cup like a stoner’s dream. The country was avid for the celebration, anxious to present itself as a new, united Germany, welcoming and relaxed. The weeks of the tournament were weeks of endless train journeys, street parties, and elation. Jürgen Klinsmann prowled the sideline when Germany played, and Oliver Kahn, displaced as first-choice goalkeeper and captain, shot daggers at him from the bench. It was the only vivid tension in the tournament.
Based in Berlin for a long stretch. I arrived early one morning at the Hauptbahnhof, the stunning new steel-and-glass central train station. It was a sea of green. Thousands of Mexicans were on their way to Leipzig for a match. Every shirt was green, and most of the Mexicans wore sombreros. It was like a black-and-white film suddenly drenched in color. In Leipzig on another day I watched the Ukrainian supporters emerge shyly from the station—their first World Cup. They looked in stunned disbelief at the supporters of Spain, their opponents that day. A man was banging a giant drum as young women flamencoed all around him. Young men clapped, and the whole scene climaxed in the inevitable crazy chorus of “Olé Olé Olé”.
Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland went awry from the start. Austria isn’t a football nation. The hordes that descended on Vienna met locals who seemed surprised to find that it was football, not skiing, that drew these happy people to their city. There were delightful nights in Salzburg, the city of Mozart, with Swedes and Greeks singing at one another and together. It was magnificent fun. Switzerland, though next door, seemed far away. I flew there eventually and in Geneva watched the Turkish diaspora rise to the occasion while the locals, apparently all bankers and civil servants, tried to pretend the Euro wasn’t happening. It felt like a mistake of geography.
I spent a month in Warsaw covering Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Every few days I’d fly to Kiev. It was going from some semblance of Western Europe to the wild, wild East. Everything required a small bribe or a long wait. The tournament was a moneymaking machine for the entire population. But I recall most clearly a night in Gdánsk, Poland. It was cold and wet, a ceaseless drizzle descending all day in the ancient port on the Baltic Sea. In that northern European city, there was no sign of the sun, no hint of warmth on what would be, in most places in Europe, a soft summer day.
In the stadium, the clock ticking on toward midnight. The game had fizzled. Spain were leading 3-0 against the Republic of Ireland in a middle match of the first round. It had been a farce from the start. In the fifth minute, a bit of warmup jinking, casual passing by Spain had been stopped by a lunge from Richard Dunne. He didn’t care where the ball went. It was a desperate move. The ball fell to Fernando Torres, who had seen it coming, and he slid around Stephen Ward and aimed a shot that went past Shay Given in the Irish goal.
In the 75th minute it was 3-0, game over. Then the Republic of Ireland supporters, all 30,000 of them in a stadium that held 40,000, started singing. They sang “The Fields of Athenry,” their traditional song of defiance and commemoration of the great Irish famine. They sang it over and over again. They made the stadium shake and vibrate for the longest time. They owned it. The sound made the hair stand up on the back of your head.
If you saw that match on TV, and tens of millions did—it was Spain after all, reigning World Cup and Euro champions—you saw the dreary end to a lopsided game. Spain kept possession, scored again, and got themselves out of the cold drizzle, into a bus, and away to the warmth of their hotel. The Ireland team, essentially eliminated after two games, must have left in a daze of disappointment, the prospect of a pointless match against Italy on the horizon and then home.
The Republic of Ireland supporters stuck around. They ignored the final whistle and kept singing that song. I filed my report, left the stadium, and heard them again, immediately. Every bar and restaurant was brimming with them. Loud and raucous with them. They were mad with it, the strange spirit and ecstasy of just being there. Nobody saw that on TV. No sponsor benefited, except perhaps a beer company. But it was my favorite night in a month of matches, a bliss-kissed few hours.
In 2014 I spent a month and two days in Brazil at the World Cup. Famously among my colleagues, I got drunk one night in Rio. But I was, in truth, drunk throughout—inebriated by the feeling of a heart entwined with Brazil’s lusty obsession with the game. Language is beggared by the emotion, by the constant pleasure of carousal in a place truly devoted to the game, to the contests between nations and the exaltation of the game on the nights and days that bracket the games.
That’s how it should be. That’s what Euro ’16 in France promises—the armies of supporters that follow 24 countries, on the move and mingling in one giant festival in a place where the game matters deeply. The Irish will be back, along with the mass-singing supporters of tiny Wales, and even tinier Iceland. Elation guaranteed. One last great party.