|Inside Geoffroy-Guichard Stadium|
The tram from downtown Saint-Etienne was packed with Croatian football fans wearing the internationally-renowned fashion statement: the "chequy," which is what we call that distinctive red-and-white check pattern of Hrvatska.
Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Etienne looked small. It was small. It was the smallest venue, in the smallest city, hosting one of the games in the 2016 Euros.
It is a host because of the local football club: Le Vert. Saint-Etienne's Le Vert has won more championships in French football than any other team. And it plays in small Saint-Etienne. This is truly the Green Bay Packers of France. And Saint-Etienne is its Green Bay. I would like to add "only warmer," but I can't. It's been cold and rainy here in Saint-Etienne.
But not on game day at game time. And the chequys were out in force.
The stadium was three-quarters filled with Croatian fans, almost all of whom (me being the exception) were wearing the chequy. Fans of the Czech Republic -- very nice and polite people I might add -- were in one corner of the stadium, wearing solid red.
The game started great. By the 60-minute point, Croatia was up 2-0 and it looked like it was a sure-thing to qualify for the knockout round. Czech Republic got a goal shortly after the 60-minute point, but still trailed 2-1. Then, in the 81st minute, disaster struck.
Yes, that is smoke. I always knew that Croatians relationship with their football team was, ummm, incendiary. Literally. Croat fans do things such as light smoke bombs in the stands. On this day, with the team up 2-1 and in total control, out of the fan section came flares. Being thrown onto the field.
Apparently this was the work of Croatian soccer hooligans who hate the sport's national governing body in Croatian, calling it corrupt, and they want to get their own team to lose -- take that in -- they want their own team to lose because they don't like the governing body. So they misbehave knowing that it will be the governing body they hate that will get fined and punished. Then fights broke out within the Croatian section between the conflicting groups of fans. Glad I was not in the Croatia section, just near it.
The team was visibly shaken after an explosive device (in addition to the flares) was thrown onto the field. They eventually committed a hand-ball near their goal, giving the Czechs a penalty kick, which they converted. The result was a 2-2 tie that felt like a massive defeat for the Croats and a tremendous victory after a near-death experience for the Czechs.