Lille’s a pleasant enough city. It’s no Paris, Valencia or even Porto, but it’s got some attractive architecture and a couple of picturesque squares that hopefully won’t get wrecked during the football tournament.
A 45-minute train ride from Lille is Lens. The latter is somewhat lacking in hotel accommodation so many people seem to be staying in Lille and travelling across to the games. Lens doesn’t seem as bad as it’s perceived reputation as a dreary, clapped out, post-industrial city. I’ve seen plenty of worse towns in the UK following Tranmere Rovers. Having said that, any place will look better on a sunny day with an influx of colour from 30-odd thousand visiting fans. It soon became apparent that the well-publicised alcohol ban is being liberally enforced. Or completely ignored. Plenty of entrepreneurs have set up temporary bars selling beers for €5. A bargain compared to the €6.50 they’re charging inside the stadium for 500ml of 0.5% Carlsberg. That’s not a typo with the 5 and 0 the wrong way round, it really is 0.5% ABV! I think that most people weren’t even aware of the strength of the booze they were forking out a small fortune for. Plenty of Albanians were on the beers which I thought was a bit strange as I’d always imagined Albania to be a predominately Muslim country but according to Wikipedia it is reasonably secular.
When I told people about the games I had tickets for, often the reaction to Switzerland v Albania was hilarity, or at least a fair bit of sniggering. However there are plenty of side-stories to this fixture, something I find fascinating about football. It’s Albania’s first ever game in a major tournament. As many of their players may opt to represent the newly designated Kosovo team, it could also be their last such appearance for a while. It can also be classed as a somewhat unconventional derby. Plenty of the Albanian team were born in Switzerland and a fair few of the Swiss side qualify to play for Albania. The media have given plenty of coverage to the fact that a Xhaka brother plays for each side. I had a dilemma regarding who to support. Essentially it’s a contest between the richest and poorest countries in Europe. Albania has some notable quirks such as the somewhat bizarre King Zog and its fascination with Norman Wisdom. Switzerland is perhaps a bit boring as brilliantly summed up by Orson Welles in The Third Man. National stereotyping aside, my allegiance to Albania was confirmed when I discovered that I was sitting right in the middle of their end.
The stadium in Lens is nice, kind of stylistically similar to Villa Park. The prematch atmosphere was great. Nearby was a bloke who looked like he’d been around in King Zog’s heyday was almost in tears when the Albania team emerged, as though he thought that he’d never see this day. And then after about four minutes, Switzerland gave them the old Right There Fred (to quote the great Bill Burr). I didn’t see much of the goal as most of the Albanians around me were too busy shouting abuse at Shaqiri taking the corner. Switzerland then took control of the game with its classy midfield having the Albanians chasing shadows. Albania were certainly up for the game and were getting back into the contest until they went down to 10 men before halftime. At this point I feared the worst for Albania. However in the second half Albania were having none of the inevitable defeat and were starting to get a bit more into the game. They even managed to miss a last-minute sitter which would have brought the house down. It actually turned out to be a decent contest, despite the predictions of the naysayers. On the train back to Lille it was apparent that quite a few people had travelled over from England for a day out to see this game.
The plan for England v Russia was to watch the match back at the hostel. However they weren’t showing it. According to Eddie it was because tonight’s receptionist doesn’t like football. There didn’t seem to be any nearby bars and I didn’t particularly fancy the trek back into town. I can’t condone illegal streaming of television so I’d like to make it clear that I didn’t watch the England v Russia fixture on a jerky stream via somewhere in Thailand that developed a time lag during the second half before eventually packing in prior to Russia’s last gasp equaliser.