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Layth’s Take A glimpse from Germany reporting at Euro 2024

IT HAD gone midnight on a hot, sweaty evening when the train started to trundle off, back towards Dusseldorf Hauptbahnhof.

The carriage was full, packed with football fans from the west of the continent, and football fans from the east.

Amid the post-match chatter and clatter, colour and camaraderie between both sets of supporters, a clutch of green jacketed locals stood. 

The colour green signifying volunteers, unpaid helpers who gladly gave up their time to ensure visitors’ experiences of their country were as positive as possible, that their trip to stadiums ran as smoothly as possible.

That’s when the chant went up. 

It was hard to decipher whether it came from the noisy Spanish fans, clad in the red and yellow colours of their flag, or whether it came from the more subdued, but larger in number Albanian supporters.

“Thank you volunteers/Thank you volunteers” the ditty went. As football songs go, the tune was vague and the singing slightly self-conscious. But both sets of fans picked up the sentiment to eventually sing the words lustily. 

Spain had beaten Albania 1-0 at the Dusseldorf Arena, but both joined in union to sing their thanks to those previously unheralded in green. 

Slightly embarrassed by such unexpected and spontaneous kindness, the green jacketed and green polo shirt wearers sheepishly lifted their hands in acknowledgement of the chant, as a few even clapped those singing in response. 

It was a fleeting moment of goodwill, grace hailing altruism; courtesy and decency thanking altruism.

The vignette was wonderful to witness, a microcosm of the cordiality and amiability that the 2024 European Championships have provided so far. 

I spent nearly two weeks in Germany, driving with my cousin to the tournament, via the Dover to Calais ferry, northern France, into Belgium and a night in beautiful baroque Antwerp — and its 8 per cent beers. 

Then, skirting The Netherlands for a short spell, before finally into Germany, and the Autobahn. Listening, appropriately enough to Kraftwerk’s seminal album Autobahn. And at an entirely legal 130 miles per hour. 

Dortmund was our first stop. I’d only been to this unprepossessing post-industrial city in April, to watch Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League quarter-final clash against Atletico Madrid from the Yellow Wall, and enjoyed every minute of my experience. 

There isn’t actually much to do in Dortmund, flattened by the RAF during the second world war, prior to its heavy industries of coal and steel flatlining, prior to a jaunty rejuvenation as a post-industrial tech hub. 

But there is football. There’s always football in Dortmund. Which is why I love the place so much. 

Akin to Newcastle, or Sunderland, or Liverpool, or Glasgow, Dortmund lives and breathes football. 

Everywhere you look there are yellow and black BvB stickers, the colours denoting the team. 

We’d rented an Airbnb a short walk through Westfahlen park. After being informed we had to park our cark the direction the traffic was facing otherwise we’d be fined — the pedantic detail amused rather than annoyed — we walked over to the stadion. The mighty 81,000-capacity Westfahlen, shorn to around 65,000 for this tournament. 

In an irony of irony, the behemoth that is commerce-obsessed tournament organisers Uefa, refused to allow the sponsors’ name to be used, because, well, they weren’t Uefa sponsors. 

Not that the tens of thousands of Turkey and Georgia fans minded. 

In what turned out to be one of the games of the tournament so far, both sides went hammer and tong to win the game. 

The pulsating clash featuring pyro and smoke, ear-splitting whistles, deafening chants and booming songs. Not to mention a relentless downpour so biblical, my trainers were still damp a week later. 

From my position in the Dortmund press box, the contest also contained two early contenders for goal of the tournament, from Turkey’s Mert Mulder and Real Madrid teen starlet Arda Guler during their 3-1 victory over Georgia — who would later stun the football world in one of the greatest shocks in tournament history by beating Portugal 2-0, ensuring passage to the knock-out stage in their debut bow. 

A jaunt down the autobahn to Frankfurt came next, via the beguiling town of Mainz, where I stayed during the 2006 World Cup. 

It was reassuring to know absolutely nothing had changed in that convivial town of timbered-beams. 

Nor had England changed that much, after a faltering 1-1 draw with Denmark nearby, as Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions continued to underwhelm. 

We also had our biggest night out, catching up with old pals in the cobbled streets of Frankfurt’s evocative Aldstadt, laughing about previous trips around the world supporting England, making new memories, eventually getting home to our hotel at 10am. 

Forty-eight hours later — for we’d lost a day, eventually awakening at 6.45pm the next evening, after our bacchanalian excesses, still tired and hungover — our errant car (don’t ask) was freed by Daniel of the Mainz Fire Brigade, which also necessitated a quick trip in his fire truck. 

Such are the memorable vagaries of tournament experiences. 

The awe-inspiring twin domed cathedral of Cologne was next, for an equally awe-inspiring atmosphere generated by the passionate yellow-clad Romania support, and the red and black of Belgium. 

While Domenico Tedesco’s Red Devils were to triumph 2-0 that evening at the Mungersdorf — powered by a Kevin De Bruyne masterclass, who it has it be said looked absolutely shattered in the post-match press conference I attended afterwards — Edward Iordanescu’s hard-working side had the last laugh by topping the group. 

While disgruntled Belgium fans proved they weren’t the only set of supporters to boo their own team — as England fans were to do a matter of days later at the same stadium. 

Speaking of which, the haggard, haunted, slightly shellshocked look Southgate wore at his press conference in the same stadium that I also went to, will stay with me far longer than it should. 

This emotionally intelligent, empathetic and articulate man brought to his knees by the pressure, and inability to make his team click. 

The matches sandwiched between a trip to the curiously mesmerising, brutalist facade of the Dusseldorf Arena, that literally stopped me in my tracks at the sight of its stark originality, which even now has left me unsure whether it was genius, or an eyesore. 

But that’s what attending tournaments does to you, it grabs your senses, and compels you to watch. 

And over the last couple of days, my brilliantly engaging, fun-loving cousin and I retraced nearly 500 miles, to ensure I kept a long-held promise to my youngest daughter, who wanted me to drive her to her prom. 

I didn’t want to let her down, so we came back. It was a moment to cherish. 

One of so many made this memorable summer so far. 

Layth will be back in Germany to cover England vs Slovakia and France vs Belgium over the coming days. Add your email to his Euro 2024 daily diary on Substack at Layth’s Take for regular updates

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