By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – Hosts France enjoyed an uplifting start to Euro 2016 as Dimitri Payet’s superb last-gasp strike bailed out Les Bleus in a 2-1 victory over a stubborn Romania side at the Stade de France on a peaceful night in the capital on Friday.
Starting the month-long tournament amid strikes to protest against a labor law and terror fears seven months after Islamic attacks on Paris killed 130, the national team lightened the mood thanks to Payet’s 20-metre drive into the top corner.
Didier Deschamps’ team seemed to be heading for a gloomy draw but a moment of magic from talismanic West Ham United player Payet left the home fans celebrating a memorable win on a serene Paris evening to get the finals off to a fine start.
There were no incidents reported in and around the stadium, where there was a heavy security presence, or at the fan zone, where some 90,000 people were expected to watch the Group A game on giant screens near the Eiffel tower.
French president Francois Hollande, who last November was rushed away from the stadium with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after suicide bombers detonated devices near the arena, was seen shaking hands with fans on his way out on Friday.
Security was tight at the Stade de France and fans had been urged to arrive early to have time to go through a double security perimeter with two successive security checks under the watchful eyes of armed police with bulletproof vests.
There were only cheers inside the stadium, however, as Payet wrapped up the three points following Olivier Giroud’s headed opening goal for the hosts just before the hour that was canceled out by Bogdan Stancu’s penalty eight minutes later.
A kitsch opening ceremony, featuring about 100 can-can dancers, a techno cover of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ and aerobatics by the Patrouille de France jets, launched the event.
France had not played a competitive game in two years and Romania, who had only conceded twice in the qualifying campaign, were a stern reminder that Les Bleus need to be on their toes if they are to win a first title since their Euro 2000 triumph.
“Had we won by two or three goals that might have misled us slightly whereas the fact we won late in the day, that shows there are going to be no easy matches,” man-of-the-match Payet told reporters.
France, who top the group ahead of Saturday’s clash between Albania and Switzerland, got off to a nervous start, looking a pale shadow of the team who breezed past their recent opponents.
Captain Hugo Lloris had to make a point-blank save early on and France failed to manage a shot on target in the first half.
After 57 minutes Giroud silenced his critics when he headed home from Payet’s cross after Romania keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu completely missed the ball as he jumped with the France striker.
Eight minutes later, however, Stancu coolly converted a penalty after Patrice Evra’s clumsy foul on Nicolae Stanciu.
However, the impressive Payet, who had been behind almost every France opportunity, was on hand to save the day.
Collecting the ball from N’Golo Kante, Payet cut inside and struck a vicious drive into the top corner, sending the crowd into raptures.
“It’s quite easy in football when you can bang it into the top corner. It solves quite a lot of problems,” said Deschamps.
“The opening match of a competition is bit like playing in a cup final so we were maybe just a little bit timid in the opening 25 minutes… we put four attacking players on the pitch to try to grind out the victory.”
France next take on Albania in Marseille on Wednesday after Romania play Switzerland in Paris.
On Saturday England take on Russia in Group B amid fears of trouble between their fans in Marseille, where there was a stand-off between supporters on Friday, 18 years after England followers caused chaos in the Port city at the World Cup.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot, additional reporting by Matthew Smith and Patrick Vignal,; Editing by Ken Ferris)