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EURO 2016

FOOTBALL

Victorious France faces pilot strike as Euro 2016 kicks off

France was revelling in a victorious start to the Euro 2016 on Saturday after winning the opening match, but a strike by Air France pilots threatened to disrupt travel for hundreds of thousands of fans.

Victorious France faces pilot strike as Euro 2016 kicks off
Dmitri Payet celebrating his stunning 25-metre goal. Photo: AFP

Police were on high alert in the southern city of Marseille, where England and Russia supporters clashed and hurled bottles at officers in a second night of violence before their first game.

Industrial unrest, fears of terrorist attacks and devastating flooding have overshadowed the buildup to the month-long tournament.

But football fans were in good spirits as more than 80,000 poured into the Stade de France in Paris for the opening match between France and Romania on Friday.

The packed stadium erupted with delight, while supporters watching in bars around the city cheered, when Dmitri Payet gave the host nation a stunning 25-metre goal to grab a last-gasp 2-1 victory.

President Francois Hollande hailed the “smooth” start to the tournament on Friday, despite a 10-day train strike that has caused travel disruption across France.

France needs the championships to be “a sporting success” but also “a big event for the people,” said Hollande, wearing a scarf in the national colours of red, white and blue.

Weeks of industrial action over government reforms to labour law had dampened the party atmosphere around the tournament, disrupting rail and metro services and leaving petrol pumps dry in many places.

Arriving fans have been confronted by stinking piles of rubbish left strewn on the streets of Paris and Marseille after strikers began blockading incineration plants.

The head of the CGT union Philippe Martinez, who is spearheading opposition to the labour market reforms being pushed by the government, has vowed not to be “blackmailed with the Euro”.

In another headache, Air France pilots will begin a four-day stoppage on Saturday, just as crowds of foreign fans are expected to begin arriving on French soil.

Air France CEO Frederic Gagey has promised that more than 80 percent of flights would operate.

Still, some fans feared their experience of the tournament might be hindered by the strikes.

“We don't know how we'll get home,” said Emilie Riquier, a 35-year-old fan who had travelled to Paris from the southern city of Nice for the opening game.

Fears of terror attacks have also overshadowed the build-up to the Euro 2016 in France, which has been under a state of emergency since attacks by Islamic State jihadists in November killed 130 people.

The tournament is expected to attract around two million foreign visitors for the matches at 10 venues around the country, posing a major security challenge.

The French government has launched a smartphone app that can alert users to any suspected attack or other disaster according to their location.

Some 90,000 police and private security guards are being deployed to protect players and supporters, including 13,000 in the capital alone, where soldiers could be seen patrolling with submachine guns.

The Paris fan zone at the foot of the Eiffel Tower was only half-full on Friday, according to police, suggesting security fears had dampened the enthusiasm of some fans.

“There is a lot of security here, but it's OK,” said 20-year-old Ruairi Scott from Belfast, downing pints.

“I was a little worried before we came here, but not anymore. I feel safe.”

Further south, stretched security forces in Marseille fired teargas at football hooligans after clashes broke out for a second night ahead of a match between England and Russia.

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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