Belfast Telegraph

Foster, McIlroy and Frampton head list of VIPs in stands for historic Northern Ireland tie

By Adrian Rutherford

They are arriving not in their hundreds, but in their thousands. The Green and White takeover of Nice is continuing ahead of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 opener against Poland.

Up to 10,000 fans are travelling to cheer on Michael O'Neill's side, who will end a 30-year wait for an appearance at a major tournament here tomorrow.

First Minister Arlene Foster, golf star Rory McIlroy and boxing champ Carl Frampton are expected to be among the 35,000-capacity crowd.

Tickets for the game have been like gold dust, but it's thought at least 9,000 Northern Ireland fans will be inside the Stade de Nice for the historic fixture.

It comes 30 years to the day that we played our last game at a major finals - against Brazil in the 1986 World Cup.

But the journey has not been without its problems for supporters. A series of strikes have caused chaos across the country, forcing some fans to rip up their travel plans at the last minute. The tournament is also taking place against a backdrop of intense security.

Heavily-armed police patrolled the streets around France's national stadium as the tournament got under way last night.

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The Stade de France, where the host country took on Romania, was targeted by suicide bombers in last November's Paris attacks. And last night there was further trouble in Marseille, where England get their tournament under way against Russia tonight.

However, the problems have not dimmed the enthusiasm of the thousands heading from Northern Ireland.

Hundreds of supporters were arriving through Nice Airport and the city's train station yesterday. The number will swell today as kick-off draws ever closer.

Mrs Foster, the First Minister, is flying out for the match.

She said tomorrow's fixture is the culmination of an historic few years for the Northern Ireland football team.

"I'm delighted that I will be amongst those travelling to Nice and cheering on the team," she said. "Having visited the team a few weeks ago while they were training in Belfast I got an opportunity to experience the fantastic team spirit that Michael has built.

"While we may not have the best known players in the tournament, we are a team that has proven it can compete with anyone. This has been the year of the sporting underdog, and there certainly are plenty of us who are daring to dream."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will not be at the game, but is planning to attend the final group fixture against Germany in Paris.

Sports Minister Paul Givan paid tribute to the thousands of supporters who are following the team on their great Euro adventure. "Fans are a very important part of any sporting tournament and the loyalty that has been shown by the Green and White Army travelling to France is overwhelming," he said.

"The fans will inspire the players and I know the team is inspiring the country and I am sure that Michael O'Neill and the rest of the squad will be spurred on by the noise of the Northern Ireland fans at all the matches."

Belfast Telegraph