PARIS — Irish soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy decided last week he wouldn’t be going to France for the Euro 2016 soccer championships that begin next month. He just wasn’t inclined to be a sitting duck in one of of those stadiums.
Dunphy didn’t need to hear new warnings from French and German intelligence that Euro 2016 matches could be prime targets for terrorists—intel that had been released, as it happens, just a few hours before EgyptAir Flight 804 crashed in the Mediterranean after taking off from Paris.
Dunphy, a former soccer star turned broadcaster, has canceled plans to go to the matches, all 51 of which will be held in 10 cities across France—from Paris and Lens in the north to Nice and Marseille in the south—beginning June 10 and ending July 10.
And he’s not alone. Two elementary schools in Northern Ireland have canceled trips to the Euro finals, citing fears about potential attacks, and there have been reports indicating some hotel bookings around the country have been dropped in the wake of amped-up fears of terrorism in France. Shares in tour operator Thomas Cook tumbled 19 percent after the EgyptAir crash Thursday, its biggest drop in four years.
The profitable long-haul routes between North America and Europe by the major international airlines like Lufthansa have been taking a major hit with each successive terrorist attack and, now, the EgyptAir crash, although its cause has yet to be determined. It surely didn’t help France’s tourism industry when Donald Trump announced in March after the Brussels attack that Britain and Europe are “not safe places” and Europe has a lot of “very, very severe” problems.
The ongoing state of emergency was extended for another two months on Thursday to cover both Euro 2016 and the Tour de France, which runs from July 2–24 and also attracts millions of spectators throughout the country.
The opening match between France and Romania takes place at the Stade de France in Paris, which was one of the venues targeted by suicide bombers last November. They failed to enter the stadium, the scene of a friendly between France and Germany with French President François Hollande in attendance. But next time they might be more effective.
“The tournament is a month long and the targets are numerous,” Dunphy told the Irish RTÉ radio show Game On.
“It’s the world we live in now,” said Dunphy, “with the likes of ISIS stating explicitly that the Euros are a target. I wouldn’t go and I’d be extremely troubled if anyone close to me went. The French police say they’ll have SAS-style security squads within 20 minutes of every hotspot. Well, it doesn’t take 20 minutes for something to happen.”
Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) released a new report indicating that the Euro 2016 opener and final game could be especially vulnerable to terrorism.
“Symbolic and easy targets that receive a lot of attention from the media and automatically attract a large number of victims” like the Euro 2016 matches are high-risk, the BKA reported, stating the obvious.
But the French have been more specific.
Wednesday night, just hours before the country was plunged into more horror and disbelief over the EgyptAir crash, officials released transcripts of Patrick Calvar, head of France’s DGSI internals intelligence agency, testifying before members of the defense committee in the French parliament this month.
Calvar said ISIS is planning “a new form of attack ... characterized by placing explosive devices in places where there are large crowds and repeating this type of action to create a climate of maximum panic.”
Calvar called France the prime target of the so-called Islamic State. “It is the most threatened,” he said.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after the Brussels attacks in March that Euro 2016 would take place and he promised that “the government will ensure the security of our compatriots on the occasion of this beautiful and valuable sporting event.”
In response to the release of Calvar’s remarks this week, Valls told France’s RTL radio simply that “we will not drop our guard.”
But how can France truly protect the estimated 2.5 million people who will attend the games in French stadiums and the 1 million or more in the notorious “fan zones” where many watch the matches on big-screen television with little or no screening or control?
Experts were brutally frank.
“Nobody can really protect us, that’s the bottom line,” Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, told The Daily Beast. “It’s our new reality and it may be so for quite some time. I’m glad I’m not a football fan. I won’t be going but I know people who will be.”
Said Philippe Capon, head of UNSA, France’s largest police organization: “We are putting all the resources and then some into making sure the players and the fans have the best possible security. It’s hyper-complicated but we are looking at every eventuality. But no guarantee is 100 percent in this climate of random attackers.”
An estimated 10,000 security officers will be deployed during the games—which means 900 guards at every match—and state-of-the-art technology like anti-drone measures will be put in place at stadiums to keep out possible airborne attacks.
Euro 2016 security chief Ziad Khoury told the Associated Press that no-fly zones will be established over all 10 stadiums and the training areas for the 24 teams.
Police and security exercises for Euro 2016 have included a mock attack by a drone carrying chemical agents at the Geoffroy Guichard Stadium in Saint-Etienne in southeast France where several matches will be held.
“When you prepare an event of this size, you must imagine all scenarios, even the most unlikely,” Khoury said.
Not so long ago, said one British-born resident of Nice, the only scenario people imagined during soccer matches in France involved too much alcohol and fighting.
“Normally I’m embarrassed every time a pack of English yobs show up here to watch the World Cup or the Euro games and get hopelessly drunk,” said Mick Sutton, a British-born resident of Nice.
“But this time I’m probably going to be more worried about them than anything else. I’m much more aware that [terrorist] attacks are getting less random and more normal in France.”
Ray Clarke, 51, a Scottish football fan who lives in Paris, disagrees.
“It’s going to be fine,” he said. “You’ll be in more danger driving to the venue than when you actually get here. Don’t make a big deal about it.”