BY MIKE RIDLEY
There are many firsts when it comes to football. Your first football cleats, your first football shirt, your first goal, your first professional game you attend, and of course, your first major international tournament!
My first pair of cleats were the Quasars as worn by Gary Linekar, my first football shirt was an Arsenal home shit with JVC on the front, my first professional game was Queens Park Rangers versus Southampton at Loftus Road, and my first major international tournament was the 1998 France World Cup. France 98 was also the first time I bought a shirt with a name and number on it - the infamous yellow and green Ronaldo 9 Brazil home shirt, which now sits in a frame signed by the king himself.
I attended two games at France ’98, one in Paris and one in Toulouse. The first game at Parc de Prince was Bulgaria versus Nigeria. Bulgaria were a shadow of the team that reached the semi-finals of USA 94. Overall, the game was average at best but the atmosphere lead by the colorful Nigerian fans was like a carnival, and thanks to a single goal by Victor Ikpeba was enough to keep the carnival going.
The second game was Romania versus England . This was the game where a baby faced Michael Owen announced his arrival to the world coming on late in the game to level the score 1-1. England were not victorious that days as some lackluster defending by Graham Le Saux allowed Dan Petrescu to score and Romania won 2-1.
Since France 1998 many things have happened in football, such as the emergence of super clubs, Brazil winning the World Cup for the 5th time, Greece winning the Euro’s, Spain finally shedding their in ability to perform on the big stage, FIFA was turned upside down, the Messi vs. Ronaldo rivalry became the most heated debate amongst football fans, and my club Arsenal went from being the Invcincibles to the perennial underachievers.
My Return to France
I arrived in Paris via at Charles de Gaulle and began the final part of the journey to the city via cab. The cab driver was in Euro mode, with a mini Zidane on the dashboard and wearing his French jersey.
“it is going to be like 1998 – we don’t have Zidane but we have Payet, Pogba and Griezmann” stated the driver beaming with confidence.
As we rolled through St.Denis and past Stade De France I could not help but agree that it could well be like 1998 for the French team. However, as the image of Zidane scoring filled my mind I wondered if any of the players the driver listed could really live up to the legend. Afterall, the scene was set for one of them to write themselves into French history.
Upon arrival to the center of Paris I went straight for the Fan Zone to watch Wales versus Northern Ireland and then France versus Rep of Ireland. Needless to say, the streets were alive with football as the herds of fans walked and chanted their way to the Eiffel Tower. The Welsh fans swelling with pride in their red shirts, both sets of Irish fans in their green jerseys, and of course, the sea of French fans in their blue shirts.
The fan zone was located just by the Effile Tower, which was decorated with a giant football hanging from the tower.
As we turned to walk into the entrance a stark reminder of just how different a world we live in today appeared. Hoards of French soldiers were present with semi-automatic weapons. Then came the three security checks and pat downs. In fairness it was somewhat comforting as well as somewhat daunting.
Once we entered the Fan Zone the reminder of the conflict in the world quickly slip into the distance as the atmosphere once again became a celebration of football and unity. The Fan Zone was seemed to be a giant group karaoke competition with the Welsh fans singing “Don’t take me home, ” the Northern Ireland fans singing “Will Griggs on Fire,” the Republic of Ireland fans singing “Fields of Athenry" and the French singing “Les Marseillais.”
And while the results matter with both Wales and France going through the fans just kept on signing as more and more Carlsberg seemed to find its way on to the floor rather than the mouths of the fans.
hile the atmosphere of the streets and Paris overall was incredible and alive with the sounds and colors of the Euro’s, nothing quite beats that feeling of being at a game. The next day we were off to the Stade De France for Italy versus Spain. And while in France 1998 the expectations around the Spanish national were low, the expectations in 2016 were that they could win the tournament.
Unlike other games I have been to, there were not that many fans on the train to the game so it was a fairly quite affair. I remember thinking well it is probably because we are leaving for the game early as I felt due to added security it would probably take a while to get into the stadium.
But how wrong I was about leaving early. As we got off the train station, we were hit with a sea of red the street party for la roja in full swing.
Upon joining the street party, the magic of football took over and suddenly it became apparent that as we were dancing and singing with Spanish fans, we had also joined forces with a large contingent of German fans supporting Spain.
While the build up for a game always gets more and more exciting as your approach the stadium, there is nothing quite like the sensation when you enter the stadium for the first time before a match. In France 98 the hairs on my arms stood up, and 18 years on, my whole body was overtaken with emotions as I entered the Stade De France. The stadium was a perfect divide of blue and red and the noise and image of 80,000 people singing, cheering and dancing was something special.
And the game lived up to its billing. It was an end-to-end game with both De Gea and Buffon staking their claim to be considered the best in the world.
However, it was the Italians 3 pronged defense which made the ultimate difference. Marshaled by Buffon, the Italians kept David Silva, Fabregas and Iniesta at bay.
Our next game was the quarter finals between the host France and Iceland at the Stade De France. Iceland had become the darling of the tournament due to their blend of passionate football, incredible support, and their Viking chant, which had become a trademark of the tournament. The hosts on the other hand had started slowly but had gotten better and stronger with each game, and as such, their support had gotten louder and louder.
The atmosphere was incredible as the two sets of fans alternated between the “Ohh” chant and “La Marseillaise” for the full 90 minutes.
Sadly for Iceland, their efforts against England left the players exhausted, while the likes of Pogba, Payet, Giroud and Griezmann were able to lift the stadium to new heights with a victory of 5-2. After the game, the darlings of the tournament went home with their heads held high as national heroes, as Griezmann was staking his claim of being French team’s Zidane as ‘les bleus’ marched on towards the final just like 1998.
However, unlike 1998 there was no fairytale ending for the hosts as a stubborn Portugal proved too much for les bleus. Mind you, just like 1998 I came back with a signed Ronaldo shirt… only a different Ronaldo.
Born in George Town Grand Cayman "Lord" Michael Ridley has been a football fan since he received his first Arsenal shirt as a 7 yr old. Since then he has been on a quest to collect as many jerseys as possible and he loves to attend the big occasion including 4 FA Cup Finals and a Euro Championship final. He has also been capped at international level for the Cayman Islands and as such has a fondness for all Caribbean nations football teams.