Croatia v Czech Republic, Friday 17th June 2016, 6pm

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Paul and I had intended to stay in a village just outside of St Etienne for the game between Croatia and the Czech Republic, mainly for the perfectly good reason that it was named after him. Or at least shared his surname. However, at the last minute we decided not to bother and instead we booked another night in Lyon and made a forty minute rail journey to St Etienne instead.

Our first port of call was an Irish bar for lunch and then we had a nose around a temporary exhibition all about St. Etienne’s run to the European Cup Final in 1976. The competition was a much simpler affair in the mid-seventies, with just a first round, second round, quarter-final and semi before the inevitable defeat to Bayern Munich in the final.

The memorabilia was good, but it was the old photos that I found the most interesting. They’d had fixtures at Ibrox, Hampden and Eindhoven, all of which I’ve seen games at and they’d also played Dynamo in Kiev at the old stadium where Paul and I had wandered around eight years earlier before a McCartney concert.

We often seem to end up at Croatian games in these tournaments and it’s always a decent atmosphere. Mind you, my experiences of Czech fans, primarily with the Boro in Ostrava, have also been very positive.

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We paused at a bar just off the main road and around twenty minutes away from the Stade Geoffroy–Guichard. Once again we’d managed to find somewhere quiet and we had a few drinks whilst watching Italy snatch a late winner against Sweden.

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The organisation outside the ground was as poor as it had been in Paris and a crush developed in the area prior to the searches. It was one of those occasions where you needed one hand out in front of you to give some breathing space, whilst the other hand kept tight hold of your wallet.

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We had seats close to the half-way line in the lower tier directly across from the important people. The official attendance had the crowd some three thousand short of its 42,000 capacity but there looked to be more empty seats than that to me.

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England’s Mark Clattenburg had been given the refereeing gig. I’ve not watched a lot of Premier League football in the past few years with the Boro not being involved and so I’ve not really seen as much of him as most people will have done. He had an almost ‘dis-interested’ style about him, where he seemed to go about his business as if he were bored shitless. It was as if he’d been roped in at the last-minute and it had messed up his previous and much better plans. A bit, I suppose, like the way in which Alan Green behaves when required to commentate on teams like the Boro.

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The Croatians were by far the better team and with Modric pulling the strings created most of the chances. It was no surprise when they took the lead in the first half with a low Perisic shot into the corner of Cech’s net.

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At half-time we went for a wander and then watched the second half from the back-row of the upper tier. We had a chat with a French bloke who, like us, had seen a few games around the country. He seemed pleased to have picked up a ticket for face value outside, although I couldn’t help but think that in a game that had plenty of empty seats he should really have been able to acquire one for next to nothing.

Croatia doubled their lead on the hour when Rakitic clipped one over the Arsenal keeper. At this point they made a ‘Bobby Charlton in Mexico’ substitution, looking to save Modric for future games. I wondered if it might have been a little hasty when Skoda pulled one back for the Czechs with around fifteen minutes to go.

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As we had a train to catch back to Lyon we decided to leave five minutes before the end, although if we hadn’t relocated to the top of the stadium we could probably have hung on a couple of minutes longer. As we hurried away we heard the sound of flares exploding on the pitch. Clattenburg’s decision to temporarily halt play until the smoke cleared worked to our further advantage by giving us an even better head start on most of the crowd.

We made it back to the station with perfect timing for the next train with the knowledge that had we left it much later we’d have been a long way back in the queue at the barrier.

With the drinking restrictions in Lyon city centre we went back to the pizza place that we’d eaten in the previous night to watch the Spain v Turkey game. We discovered that the Czech Republic had equalised with a last-minute penalty and then ended up talking football with a couple of blokes who were on a first date. One of them was a bit of a nutter and I’d say it was fifty-fifty as to whether the pair of them would end up fucking or fighting. Maybe both.

The fourth game in four days brought the tournament to an end for us and the next day I flew back to Malaysia. As ever, we’d had a great time with no trouble. Roll on Russia and the World Cup in two years time.

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