PARIS: Thousands of police surrounded the Stade de France on Friday ahead of the European Championship gala opener between the host country and Romania amid widespread security fears.
While the French and Romanian teams sought to avoid the state of emergency fallout, terror concerns and widespread strikes have cast a shadow over the month-long football fiesta for which France are one of the favourites along with Germany and Spain.
Violence erupted when England fans were involved in a second day of fighting in Marseille, while a hint of scandal tainted the tournament when Spain goalkeeper David De Gea strongly denied links to a sex scandal.
French manager Didier Deschamps is bidding to repeat France’s triumphs at Euro ’84 and the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
After weeks of turmoil in the French camp caused by the exclusion of star striker Karim Benzema, Deschamps said: “We have been preparing for two years and you have to start the competition with desire and determination.”
France have one of the most fancied sides in Europe, with Paul Pogba one of the most wanted players.
Romania coach Anghel Iordanescu said he was expecting an “aggressive” start by France but his side had one of the toughest defences in Euro 2016 qualifying.
“There will be huge pressure on our players because they will be in a stadium full of French fans,” he said.
The French government vowed Friday to get tough with train drivers and refuse collectors who have been on strike.
Some 90,000 police and security guards are protecting the 10 stadiums and surrounding fan zones.
The first big test came in a second day of fighting between England fans and police in Marseille, where England play Russia on Saturday.
Police had to separate English and Russian supporters, police prefect Laurent Nunez told AFP adding that several arrests had been made.
Meanwhile, Manchester United and Spain goalkeeper De Gea appeared at a press conference to dismiss reports he was named in an inquiry into a party he organised where women were allegedly forced to have sex against their will.
“I am the first one to be surprised by this report. I deny it, it is false and nothing more, it is a lie and false,” De Gea told a press conference at the Spanish team base.
Eldiario.es news website said the name of De Gea and Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain appeared in the testimony of a “protected witness” as part of an investigation into Ignacio Allende, a Spanish porn producer who was detained in April for alleged sexual abuse of minors and spreading child pornography.
The witness reportedly said she and another woman were forced to participate in a party in 2012 organised by De Gea, in which they both had sex with footballers.
After France and Romania open proceedings, the newly expanded 24-team tournament kicks into gear with six games on a star-studded weekend.
England’s prolific new strike partnership of Premier League top-scorer Harry Kane and Leicester City title-winning hero Jamie Vardy will hope to outgun Russia in Marseille on Saturday.
Also in England’s group, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale will headline Wales’ opener in their first appearance in a major championship since the 1958 World Cup.
The play Slovakia, also making their first appearance at the finals. On Sunday, Germany open their campaign against Ukraine, and Bayern Munich’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski will aim to spoil Northern Ireland’s Euros debut.-AFP