EURO 2016 – Week 1

My first game of EURO 2016 came in the form of Match 3 – Wales vs. Slovakia – in the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux.

I arrived at the stadium far too early, once again surprised at how easy it was to access the car park, get through security and find my way to the Media Center. I ran through my pre-flight checks – picture caption templates, camera batteries, memory cards etc. until, eventually, we were called to select our pitchside positions. For those of you who are unaware of this process, I’ll explain it here…and for those of you who remember all too clearly my (undoubtedly monotonous) description of events, I can only apologise. You might want to skip the next paragraph…

UEFA place all photographers (except those from major agencies, such as Getty Images, Reuters, AP, AFP etc.) into priority groups. Their decisions are based, primarily, on the importance of the game to each photographer. So, for example, when England play Russia, English and Russian photographers will be placed in Priority Group 1. Photographers from the host nation, France, will go into Group 2, and all remaining photographers in Group 3. UEFA then give each individual photographer a position WITHIN their Priority Group – to this day, no one can work out how these positions are determined…all we can do is accept what we’re given. On the day of the game, usually about three hours prior to kick-off, the Priority Groups are called up to the Ticket Distribution desk, and each photographer, starting with #1 in Priority Group 1, is called forward to select their pitch position from the options available to them on the pitch layout. Every pitchside seat is numbered, and once a photographer has selected their seat, they are given a unique ticket that stakes their claim to sit in their chosen seat. No towels down early doors!

I was assigned #37 in Priority Group 1 for this game – again, I’ve no idea why, but on this occasion, it didn’t matter. The number of available seats far outweighed the number of photographers in attendance, so I knew I’d be able to move around among spare seats should I wish.

I chose my pitch position, collected my cameras from the ever-helpful Canon technicians, and headed outside to see what the fans were up to ahead of their arrival at the stadium…

Fans outside were buzzing, and the atmosphere inside the ground was just as good – with more than an hour to go until kick-off, the army of Welsh fans whose red shirts dominated the inside of the arena, were in full voice. News bulletins had been saturated with reports of violence involving England fans in the past few days, so it was a welcome sight to witness so many thousands of fans there for no other reason than to enjoy themselves.

I’d decided to cover Wales’ attack for the first half, with a view to covering them for the full ninety minutes (which I did in the end). With just ten minutes on the clock, the first goal of my tournament was scored, and fortunately, at my end, and by who else but Wales’ talisman, Gareth Bale. His left-footed free-kick dipped over the Slovakian defensive wall before bouncing under goalkeeper Matus Kozacik and into the back of the net…

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Gareth Bale scores Wales’ opening goal with a curling free-kick

Wales took that lead into half-time, and when the whistle went, I grabbed my gear together and headed up to the far end of the pitch to find an empty seat in front of the Welsh fans. I was ruing my decision to move when, on the 60th minute, Slovakia drew level with an equaliser and celebration right in front of the seat I’d been occupying for the entire first half.

Fortunately though, with less than ten minutes left to go, Hal Robson-Kanu latched into the tail-end of a great run from Aaron Ramsey to bundle the ball home from ten yards out and send the red half of the stadium into meltdown.

The players ran to the far side of the goal from where I was sitting to celebrate their late winner. Still full of energy at this early stage of the tournament, I got up from my seat having retrieved my third body with wide angle lens from the floor next to me, dumped my 400mm lens on the ground and ran across behind the goal to catch what I could of the jubilation as the players piled on top of each other around the corner flag. I made it in time to salvage something of this historic moment, and was pleased with what I got, even it did mean I was panting heavily for the next five minutes as the clock ticked down to the end of the game.

Wales held on for a famous victory, much to the delight of the fans and photographers gathered at the western end of the stadium.

I spent the next couple of hours sifting through my pictures before heading out for a bite to eat at a nearby pizzeria with a colleague, Paul, who was already exhausted from his exploits following the Welsh for the past ten days. The drive back to the hotel was a quick, quiet one – and with time to do a second edit the next morning, I hit he sack as soon as I got through the door.

The next day was spent editing and exploring the nearby towns and villages. I desperately needed to find a shop to stock up on some supplies, and equally, I needed to track down a reasonably-priced bar or restaurant too. I soon discovered Sunday really IS a day of rest…well, certainly in this part of France, anyway. There was little sign of life in any of the nearby towns of Damazan, Aiguillon or Buzet-sur-Baise. None of them showed much promise of finding anything to eat or drink. When I returned to the Chateau, my host, Patrice, suggested a couple of places worth trying, one of which paid off. Arnaud, the owner of the Auberge du Goujon qui Frétille, was extremely kind in finding a table for me on such a busy evening in the town’s only open restaurant…one which Patrice later proclaimed to be ‘the best in the local area’. The prices were extremely reasonable, and food was outstanding – there’s no doubt I’ll be going back before the end of my trip.

The next morning, breakfast was laid on for me slightly earlier than usual, allowing for an 07:30 departure to Toulouse, where Spain were due to get their tournament off to a strong start against the Czech Republic. I filled the tank in the Peugeot 308 Blue HDi for the first time since my arrival, collected my ticket at the toll and headed east along the A62.

Despite the appalling lack of signage near the stadium, I found my way into the K1 car park close to the ground and began to set up everything I needed for the game. With Spain the favourites, I chose to cover their attack in the first half, though as before, the option to change ends after the first forty-five minutes seemed to be open to us based on the number of spare seats left after the full allocation of tickets had been distributed. Traditionally, the advertising boards are angled slightly so that those photographers and cameramen along the end of the pitch further from the goal can see just as easily as those positioned closer to the goal. In Toulouse, the boards weren’t angled, so instead, the seats closer to the corner flag were positioned on a raised platform, enabling those sitting there to see ‘over’ those inside them, rather than ‘around’ them. As a result, the area at either end of the pitch was a chaotic mess of cables, seats, bags, cameras and more cables.

It was a hot, sticky day, but also, rather annoyingly, a wet one too. The combination of heat and rain isn’t a comfortable one at the best of times, and this was no different. Wedged in with little room to move, a decision had to be made prior to kick-off whether or not to wear my waterproofs. The downpours we’d experienced in the build-up to the match convinced me it would make sense to cover up, but by half-time, I was questioning my decision to do so…

It was 0-0 at the break, in a game of few incidents. The second half offered little more, especially when I’d decided to stay at the same end and cover Czech Republic…a decision I came to based on the amount of exposure Spain goalkeeper David de Gea had seen in the press recently following certain allegations made against him. So it was an informed decision. But perhaps not the correct one. With less than ten minutes to go, Gerard Pique headed home at the far end of the stadium, in front of his own fans, to secure victory for Spain. There was little more I could do other than turn to de Gea, who celebrated in trademark fashion, leaping into the air with the customary fist-pump associated with any last-gasp winner…

The drive out of Toulouse was far easier than the drive in had been. Sat-Nav had decided to give me a tour of the suburbs that morning, but fortunately was far kinder when I left the Stadium Municipal, guiding me straight out past the police cordons, down a number of side streets, back alleys etc. and out onto the familiar A62.

Having scoured three local towns for something to eat on my return, I finally came across a pizza place that was still open at the ridiculous time of…20:15! Everywhere was dead, but this place came to my rescue. An extra edit later and I was bedding down, fed and watered, before midnight.

My first port of call on Tuesday morning was Gare St. Jean, the main train station in the heart of Bordeaux. I picked up colleague Paul, who was staying close by, and made my way to the station to collect my tickets for the following day’s journey to Lille. It was a simple process that took just a few minutes, and from there we drove through heavy rain back to the Stade de Bordeaux, for the mouth-watering (!) prospect of Austria against Hungary.

As fans flooded into the stadium, a small area at the front of the stand directly behind the goal had been left empty, but moments later, it became clear why. A group of a hundred or so ‘ultras’ all dressed in black t-shirts made their way down to the bottom of the steps and filtered across the seats to fill the gap, claiming their territory with flags and banners adorned with various logos, crests, slogans and statements. They immediately began chanting, and showed little signs of easing up as kick-off approached.

The first row of fans sit some three or four feet higher than the pitch level on which we are positioned, so to see more of an overview, I needed to find an elevated viewpoint from which to shoot this group of intimidating beasts on a wider scale. I put a 14mm lens on my Canon 1DX and screwed the body into my monopod. Having naively left my Pocket Wizard remote triggers at home, I was fortunate enough to be lent some by colleague Martin Rickett – this enabled me to extend the monopod to it’s full length and hold it up over the fans, triggering the camera with the transmitter in my hand and the receiver plugged into the camera. I spent a good ten minutes or so before the game trying to get the right picture, waiting whilst the fans’ chants and corresponding arm movements made for more photogenic shapes…

I chose to cover Austria attack in the first half, in a bid to stock up on their various European stars all playing in their country’s red and white home kit. In a game that was being surprisingly dominated by Hungary, I decided to stay put for the second half and see what the opposition had to offer. Not long after the restart, much to everyone’s surprise, they took the lead, their number nine Adam Szalai scoring with a sliding effort from close range, sending the ultras into a frenzy…

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With this goal in the bag, I decided to head up the sideline towards the far end of the pitch to shoot Hungary’s goalkeeper, Gabor Kiraly…kitted out in his trademark grey tracksuit bottoms, his inclusion in the team meant he became the oldest player ever to appear in a European Championships, at the age of 40, overtaking German legend Lothar Matthias…

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Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly, wearing his trademark grey tracksuit bottoms

In the ten minutes that I was away from my original position, Hungary broke through to score asecond goal, the ball being chipped over the goalkeeper in the direction of my seat. Watching it from 70 yards away, I could tell it would’ve made a nice picture.

The scenes at the end of the match were incredible. The players all made their way to our end of the pitch to celebrate in front of their fans, lining up in the traditional European way to thank the crowd for their support. Then, one by one, they climbed over the boards and embraced the fans, making their way all the way along the front row of ultras. Cue a state of pandemonium among the photographers and stewards, the former vying to get a clean picture of proceedings whilst the latter did more to stop us taking pictures than they did to protect the players from the aggressive, animalistic fanatics pulling the players in every direction they could. This interaction revealed a passion and unity between the players and supporters that the multi-millionaire England stars could only dream of, but perhaps, arguably, an idea they should consider embracing. The gulf between those on and off the pitch is as broad as it’s ever been, and no amount of patting the badge on the chest, applauding from above the shoulders, or one-armed ‘we’re in this together’ thumbs up gestures can improve relations…

Once my editing was done for the evening, I headed out to the pizzeria just down from the stadium once again. An easy option, yes, but the idea of driving into the middle of Bordeaux at 21:30 for some more traditional, local cuisine when we could be fed and watered just as well this close by was too much to accept. I was back at my hotel not long after midnight, ready for my big trip north.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Alan Martin says:

    Always good to read your stuff, Simon.

    I’ve spent the week at Queen’s covering the tennis. I have three words – no, four, actually – to explain why this is such a good gig. Free Pimms on draught.

    Another three – free nice grub – are the icing on the cake.

    No ultras, alas, as they really don’t have them in the west end of London. Hundreds and hurray Henries and Henriettas, though. I suppose there aren’t many of them supporting Hungary for that matter.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip.

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