Life inside the heavily protected and wonderfully surreal Euro 2016 Paris fan zone

(Andrew Gastelum)

Andrew Gastelum is Howler’s man on the scene for Euro 2016 and will be sharing his experiences in France throughout the tournament. Read his previous dispatch here.

[E]ight matches, seven body searches, €6 beer, five sad Netherlands fans, four home-nation parties, three straight days which resulted in two upsets led to one giant party that all blurred together in the heart of Paris.

The fan zone is probably the safest place in Europe. Dark blue police vans line the two boulevards surrounding the Champs de Mars like trees, planted in the same spot for the last month and the still for at least the next two weeks. Cops in body armor play cards on the inside during breaks, others pose for pictures with Austrian fans who probably planned their stay a little too long.

The trucks, the riot shields, the machine guns and the body searches have become normal in Paris now. Sirens seemingly replace church bells at the top of every hour. Two lines, one for men and the other for women, extend from the entrance to the entrance that leads to the entrance of the fan zone. A weary-looking state policeman checks my bag. Half-full water bottle, not okay. Down the water while some fratboy yells “Chug chug chug” behind me. Empty water bottle, still not okay, toss it. Baguette, that’s fine. Now it’s time for the pat-down. Arms, legs, crotch, hat, to enter the fan zone you have to play the French hokey-pokey two more times. At least I still have the baguette. There’s something symbolic about that, I’m sure. They can take away our precious time, they can take away our little freedoms but they can’t take our baguettes. That would be treason against Napoleon himself and all that the Bastille represents.

But inside, the fan zone is a self-sustaining community. A pop-up McDonalds built out of fiberglass and sustainable plastic sits adjacent to a 30-yard turf soccer pitch with a mini grandstand where five-a-side teams line up for pickup games. An empty stage overlooks the field with giant monitors showing highlights of the latest games and fans sift through the official Euro 2016 store under a massive white tent.

(Andrew Gastelum)

(Andrew Gastelum)

The Champs de Mars used to be the official picnic spot for Parisians and romantic tourists for generations. The narrow lawn leading to the Eiffel Tower was always clipped to perfection, hedges manicured in perfect geometrical figures. On a sunny day, you could hardly see the grass with college kids drinking wine straight out of the bottles and businessmen in full attire sitting on their suit-jackets while attacking some exotic pâté spread with their sleeves rolled up. Kids usually played ball on the cement soccer court and on the standard, soft dirt that accompanies every Parisian park. Pickup basketball games were always full on a streetball court that has one hoop perched beneath a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Now, the grass is Coachella fairgrounds after its third weekend, piss-yellow like SpongeBob under a heat lamp. Bark and woodchips cover most of the ground, providing ammunition for Wales fans after running out of beer to throw in the air following Northern Ireland’s own goal. The celebration was fairly quick with still 15 minutes left to play and only a few more hours before they could no longer cancel their Booking.com reservations.

Their party came less than two hours after long overdue smiles bridged the faces of sweaty Polish fans following a penalty shootout victory on the easy side of the bracket. One homeless-looking, Zach Galifianakis-impersonating Northern Ireland fan cried into his jersey minutes after prodding on the Wales supporters behind him with middles fingers and Hulk Hogan ear-cupping gestures. After the game, Wales fans embraced him and bought him beer at the free-standing state-fair bars flanking the lawn, next to crepe carts and sausage vendors.

Other Wales fans partied like it was 19-, well never, because it was the biggest reason to celebrate for anyone under the age of 75. At the end of the match, a Welsh supporter collected more than 50 plastic pint cups and stacked them together into a seven-foot arch as fans did the limbo to dance music played by the fan zone deejay, whose name might have been DJ Deschamps. The limbo turned into a high-jumping contest as fans clustered in a growing circle to watch drunks clear four-foot heights that kept climbing until one Northern Irish supporter supposedly fractured his tailbone, prompting police and paramedics to rush to the scene.

The mixed group of home nations took the party to the grass instead and belted out the most popular song of the tournament:

“Don’t take me home
Please don’t take me home
Cuz I don’t wanna go to work
I wanna stay here, drink all ye beer,
Please don’t, please don’t take me home”

Meanwhile, Will Grigg was still on fire without playing a single minute of the tournament. Calm Portuguese fans waited their turn with their eyes glued to the behemoth of a big screen at the far end of the fan zone before checking their phones during the entirety of the Portugal-Croatia match. Others called relatives to complain about the match or make dinner plans. One man talked to a banana for 30 minutes as if it were a phone because, well anything was better than that game.

http://pic.twitter.com/no3FHYcuga

After the final match each night, the Eiffel Tower lights up in the colors of the nations who played that day before the big screen shows results of a social media poll checking the results of country’s hashtags. The country with the most hashtags regarding the Euros gets to see their colors adorn the Eiffel Tower all night. Turkey somehow always finishes second and they’ve been out of the tournament for a week.

When France plays, the fan zone becomes a no-go zone for most Parisians under the age of 25. The lines stretch down blocks like Space Mountain after another renovation. Most end up heading to nearby bars to watch the first half before trying their luck again at halftime. On this particular Sunday afternoon, 100,000 packed the fan zone. The click of lighters and wisps of smoke in the air was inescapable following Ireland’s early penalty. More than an hour later, that same angst and frustration turned to joy and worship of their new god, Antoine Griezmann. The dirt kicked up into the air created a dust cloud so thick that fans in the walking concourse missed the second goal in its entirety, just moments later.

The Euro scriptwriters couldn’t have more perfectly juxtaposed this French fete next to the German (lack of) celebration following a 3–0 win. The Germans hurrah-ed briefly for goals and sang quietly during their national anthem. Somewhere between subdued and sanguine, the Germans sipped their overpriced beer and sat along the ruffled aftermath of France’s victory as though it were a free suburban jazz concert. The few Belgium supporters that made their way out on a Sunday night did the same, Flemish and French bouncing around between friend groups.

Italy’s revenge was apposed to England’s tears, yet both were born out of frustration and embarrassment. The rain stopped just before the start of both matches. Italians always seemed to find each other and Azzurri blue stretched across the park in thin lines along the wood-chipped ground. Euro volunteers passed out mini Spanish flags and Italian-inspired, tri-colored, face-paint rollers. In their drunken lead-up to the England game, Three Lions’ fans set off a small explosive that boomed all the way to the front of the fan zone, turning heads and quieting crowds while Antonio Conte and Gianluigi Buffon hushed the Spanish attack. It was more action than England would have in the following 90 minutes, the final of the round of 16 and my stay in the lovely, four-star fan zone equipped with all your essential amenities and en-suite beer tent.

In a long weekend, Iceland grabbed our attention, Ireland fans captured our hearts, England caught our post-Brexit ridicule and everyone wanted to be French, at least for one day and if not for just one grand party.

The-H1

Follow Andrew Gastelum on Twitter @gastelumEPL.