Belfast Telegraph

Green and White Army set to invade as big kick-off looms

By Adrian Rutherford

A thunderstorm breaks over the French Riviera as the afternoon heat gives way to a violent burst from the skies.

People scatter for shelter, fleeing the streets and cowering under umbrellas as the rain hammers down.

It is a chaotic end to what had been a glorious day in Nice.

As evening falls, calm once more descends around the Baie des Anges at the gateway to the Mediterranean.

Soon the peace will be broken again by the colour and noise of the Green and White Army.

It is 6pm local time, exactly 72 hours until Northern Ireland open their Euro 2016 odyssey against Poland.

As the countdown to kick-off nears its end, the city is braced for an invasion.

Yesterday, a handful of Northern Ireland shirts could be seen among the swell of tourists strolling along the promenade. Among the first to arrive here was Alan Martin, from Limavady, Co Londonderry.

He still cannot believe he is about to see his country walk out at a major tournament.

"To be here is a dream come true," he says.

By Sunday, at least 9,000 Northern Ireland fans will be packed inside the city's 35,000-capacity Allianz Riviera stadium for kick-off.

For Nice, it is also an occasion which has been a long time coming. It was not a host city when the last big football tournament - the 1998 World Cup - was held in France.

Northern Ireland versus Poland will be its first match ,and the locals are hugely excited.

The tournament opens tonight in the capital against the backdrop of a severe terror threat.

In Nice, however, the security is low-key, at least to the casual observer.

A group of six or seven police officers armed with guns stroll along Rue Massena, a popular restaurant spot.

At Ma Nolan's Irish bar on a busy street just off the sea front, a dozen Northern Ireland fans are among the revellers.

Colin Graham, from Belfast, believes Northern Ireland's followers will do the country proud over the next fortnight.

"There has been good banter between the fans," he says. "We've run into a few from England. Some Polish fans were giving us a bit of stick, saying Robert Lewandowski is going to score against us, but it's all been good fun."

Lee Jordan travelled from Limavady via stops in London and Venice and arrived in Nice on Wednesday. He is here for two weeks and will be at all three group games.

"I think we'll qualify for the next round," he says. "And depending on who we get, we could go further."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph