Thousands of Les Bleus fans swarmed around their beloved Stade de France in cheerful mood on Friday, brushing any security fears aside to offer feverish support to the host nation before their Euro 2016 opener against Romania.
Reaching the elegant arena on the outskirts of Paris on a stormy evening posed a challenge for some because of rail transport disruption in a country plagued for weeks by mass protests against a labour law.
“I would have walked,” said Paul, 21, his team’s colours painted on his cheek.
“We may not have garbage collection at the moment in France but we have the best side in the world,” he added, referring to another of the problems besetting France on the first day of the month-long tournament.
Under his arm was a copy of French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe, with the front-page headline urging France to “write history again” after lifting the World Cup on that same pitch in 1998.
There were dark moments here, too. The stadium was one of the sites targeted by last November’s Islamist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.
Armed police with bulletproof vests and a double security perimeter with two successive security checks for the supporters, who were asked to come to the stadium early, provided a reminder of the organisers’ greatest concern.
“We’re used to seeing men in uniform with assault rifles these days and there aren’t that many around here,” said Yohann, 24, proudly wearing France’s fondly-remembered 1998 shirt. “It’s okay, we’re not scared.”
More than 90,000 police, soldiers and private security agents will be deployed across France to ensure safety during the tournament that is expected to attract about 2.5 million spectators.
“Our main aim has been to make sure we could offer the best possible tournament given the circumstances in every aspect, and that includes security,” organising committee chairman Jacques Lambert told a pre-tournament news conference.
Waiting for those who made it to their seats early enough was an opening ceremony celebrating French popular culture, with DJ David Guetta performing the tournament’s official anthem, high kicks from can-can dancers and aerobatics from the Patrouille de France jets.
Outside Stade de France, scalpers discreetly offered tickets. “It’s 250 euros and the price is going down every minute,” said one, suggesting there could be a few empty seats.
After a short speech from coach Didier Deschamps, a man of few words, the France players left their Paris hotel for the Stade de France in their brand new bus sporting the team’s slogan, “your strength, our passion”, a clear message to the supporters.
Several players stressed in the build-up to the opening game that they could feel the fans’ expectations were sky-high.
“We feel it is our obligation to them to have a great tournament and to go all the way,” said reserve goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.