WELL, Scotland are not, on our own, members of the EU – but just as that's not stopped Nicola Sturgeon heading to Brussels and getting involved in a party that she's not invited to I took off to EURO 2016 in France, regardless of Scotland being nowhere near qualifying.
Lots of folks who I blame for that, from the blazers at the SFA/SPFL and on through the old firm, Sky TV, Gordon Strachan, rising standards of living across the country, ‘no ball games’ signs on every half-decent opportunity for kick-about, and the internet, but that's all a rant for another time.
My friends and I put in for tickets in the ballot and voila - next thing I knew I was seeing 15 teams play in 9 games, in 5 stadiums, in 4 cities. Marseille; Saint-Étienne, Lyon, Stade de France and Parc des Princes in Paris.
The first match in Marseille was England vs Russia and ended up meriting a full blog featuring Russian hooligans, tear gas and riot police. Now I've been round a lot more of the tournament there's plenty to compare that initial experience to. The games I saw were:
Russia vs England in Marseille
Northern Ireland vs Ukraine in Lyon
Albania vs Romania in Lyon
England vs Slovakia in Saint-Étienne
Northern Ireland vs Germany Parc des Princes
Iceland vs Austria at Stade de France
Northern Ireland vs Wales Parc des Princes
France vs Ireland in Lyon
Spain vs Italy at Stade des France
I guess I'll do cities, stadiums, then fans, then teams - so you'll know who to get your money on for the later rounds.
Stadium-wise Marseille is the big winner. It's a work of art. The Paris stadiums next, then Saint-Étienne. A long way least is the stadium in Lyon; the atmosphere is great when it's packed, views of park/seats etc are all grand, but it's in the back-end of beyond. You get a metro from town, then swap to a tram, then swap to a shuttle bus, around an hour later you end up in fields in the French countryside wishing you'd brought a carry-out as there's certainly nowhere to buy anything, and nothing to see.
Out of town stadia are a big thumbs down for me, the likes of Man City’s is also a soulless, depressing affair, with no attachment to any sort of local community - but at least there the tram takes you directly, and you can have a beer with more than 0.5% alcohol. Getting home from the Lyon stadium is worse, everyone wants to get home directly as there's nothing to keep anybody in the area so 70,000 folks are crushing up against each other at the exits to try to get past the barriers and into the queue for the bus to take you to the tram to take you to the Metro and 90-120 mins later you are back in town, but don't expect Lyon to have anything open for you.
I was not the only football fan excited at visiting the food capital of the world. What treats would they have in store for tens of thousands of curious, hungry visitors from around the world? Well, when the game was a 21.00 kick off the stadium you would have had a choice of a kebab or McDonalds. Sticking to their guns the kitchens opened at 19.00 as normal, just the time everybody had to set off to the ground. By the time everybody got back to town around 00.30/01.00? You guessed it - kitchens closed!
Not every game I had in Lyon was a 21.00 kick off though, and I can happily recommend the food in Lyon – so long as it's done on their terms. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse merits a particular mention for a couple of memorable brunches...
The other four stadia were all much closer to town. Leaving Marseille was also chaotic, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and blame the violent Russians for disrupting the organisers’ hopefully well-laid plans. Turns out that whilst Lyon seemed determined to pass on business opportunities provided by fans, in Paris and Saint-Étienne they do know the French word for entrepreneur. Helpful locals selling cans of beer for small markups and plenty bars around the grounds kept us in the area of stadium until crowds had dispersed. They could teach us a thing or two, as obviously any bright spark wanting to sell cans of beer in the street to weary travellers in Scotland would soon fall foul of our own killer of entrepreneurialism – the bully state’s dead hand.
Best named bar was the Winch Cafe in Lyon (I did try, but nae luck, nothing to report), best lock-in was a wee bar in Marseille that I've no chance of remembering the name of but involved folks dancing on the bar a la Port of Leith, I'll remember Le Glass in Pigalle (an area of Paris) for the rest of my life – great cocktails, sharp staff – and following the EU referendum results coming through. Let's just say my night stepped up with the Sunderland result being announced. I've never normally been so popular in trendy pubs and clubs than my friends and I were over the next few days – a hint of a British accent and folks wanted to know about Brexit, how we'd all voted (we were split pretty much 50/50) and what it all meant. Loved drinking outside bars in the streets of Paris well into the wee small hours whilst bands/djscos kept the tunes going. No worries that the streets were residential and that it was a school night. I'm not sure what their community councils say about such noise pollution, but I'm all for it.
So cities-wise Paris wins hands down, Marseille a close second, Saint-Étienne a distant third and you can keep Lyon despite the food. Saint-Étienne threw the red carpet out for us, massively hospitable, just small and not going to compete with the rest of France’s attractions. Plus the stadium is green and white. That's always going to put me off. Have to mention a day trip to Épernay, home of champagne, as well worth doing. Just over an hour on the train, through all the vineyards and touring the champagne houses. It felt appropriate to be there on the day the EU referendum result came through. We were happy to reassure the good people whilste there that champagne was safe from Brexit, even if it is under pressure from Prosecco and the fine sparkling being made across the channel in England...
So how were the fans? Who ranks where? In Marseille the England fans were great, under massive provocation, supported their team well at the stadium, and partied hard across town. We ended up locked in a bar with some Russian fans afterwards surprisingly having a great time, but they were quiet at the stadium and had 200 state-backed animals desperate to kick anyone and everyone's heads in, so they're not getting up the list.
For all the England fans were great at their game in Marseille by the time I met them again for the game vs Slovakia they were a much-subdued lot, as their team’s performances on the pitch got more and more abject. The England players’ behavior was inexcusable – overrated, overpaid, overly famous, overly hyped, their fans deserved much better than what they received.
Then Northern Ireland vs Ukraine - what a party - my mum’s from Larne, and this was maybe the first time I've been pleased about that! Embracing my Ulster heritage I sang and danced with the best of them. Were Ukraine there? Who knows. But we won at a major tournament for the first time since the 1980s so we made a right racket. Also really rammed home how crap fan zones are. Sure, there's a big screen for watching the game on but it means hanging out in a car park queuing up to drink overpriced lager in plastic cups when 100 yards away there are great pubs and restaurants with TVs on, and even better a big grassy square with an off license on the corner.
You'd better believe the Green and White Army chose the carry out and grassy square option. The Northern Irish fans showed this was no flash in the pan, singing from start to finish in the game we lost to Germany (though the one nil defeat felt like a victory) and then from start to finish against Wales, who once sang when they were winning and took 90mins to deliver an original, authentic Welsh song. Massive thumbs up for the Northern Ireland fans.
You could sleep right through the Welsh ones. Best thing about Wales was undoubtedly Gareth Bale. I've seen him play three times live - he destroyed Hearts at Tynecastle, scored and won in a Champions League Final and made the telling contribution in the game vs NI. He's a machine.
The wee teams really do things well though. What a party Albania had a couple of days later vs Romania. Romania used to have great teams, Lacatus, Hagi, Petrescu, Popescu et al but this Romania team are not fit to lace their boots. This Albania team though, are their best ever. It was their first time at a major tournament, and they chose this game to score their first goal and record their first win. They raised the roof for the entire game.
The Iceland crowd was different to any others, coming in predominately family units so lots of women and children, and their best song is an impressive clapping routine with no singing at all – HUH! Some would say it was made for me! Austria came in great numbers, but I cannot remember anything unique about them.
The other Irish lot partied hard. Hard to see too much difference between them and the other home nations with our shared drinking and football culture, they were having a great noisy time in their game vs France and tried the old trick of drinking Lyon dry. The bars really hit the jackpot with us all in town. The French stepped it up though, especially when the nudged in front. They've by far the best national anthem, Germans not far behind. Really impressive when the belt it out during the game, not like the dirges so many countries (including Scotland) have.
The quality at the Italy vs Spain game was all on the park. Italian manager Conte has been right on everything so far this tournament - including the dig he had at his own fans for being invisible in the stadium.
Best fans award is going to Northern Ireland, followed by Albania, followed by Ireland.
Time for my betting tips. I was on Belgium to win the tournament, but after Wales’ amazing win I fancy Italy but with Griezmann of France to be top scorer. Italy are serious contenders though – by far the best team I saw in my games – and I saw Germany and France.
It's been great doing a major tournament. Scotland should try it some time, though maybe missing out on Russia and Qatar would not be terrible...