Flags, booze and booing: fans embrace doing what they love at Euro 2024

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> fans at the Arena AufSchalke for the 1-0 Group C win against Serbia.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

It was all too easy to lose count of how many flags there were: 50? 60? 100, or more? Leicester, Coventry, “our mate Jimmy Lockett”, Marwood Whites, Courthouse Reds, Oulton Broad and Hereford. It seems there was no part of England that hadn’t had a run on its polyester flags of St George. And for that matter Belgrade might be short on flags too – there was barely an inch of Gelsenkirchen hoarding that wasn’t marked out as territory by fans of either Serbia or England.

With fingers crossed and barring any late-night disorder, the sole first‑round match to have been designated as “high risk” by Uefa passed without real trouble or incident. But it did confirm what had already been visible across the Ruhr valley these past few days; that the international football tournament is back and football fandom with it.

Related: Fans clash in Gelsenkirchen before England face Serbia in Euro 2024 game

Eight years is a long time in football, and Germany 2024 is the first tournament since France 2016 to offer easy, unfettered enjoyment to European supporters. They have embraced the opportunity. Fans from across the continent and beyond (there were Japanese ultras in the mix in the town of Essen on Sunday morning, and a family of Mexicans who had arrived turned out in England gear, with Bellingham on the back, of course) have been talking, joking, chilling and, yes, drinking to their hearts’ content for nearly a week.

Consistent drinking, for good or bad, is a consistent and abiding part of football fan culture, just as displaying flags is, or wearing that precise vintage of shirt, or singing a new chant about Phil Foden to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. More than that, being a football fan is about being among crowds, about losing yourself amid a horde, again for good or bad. And after a run of tournaments that went from authoritarian state to pandemic-ravaged, multi-country mess, to a World Cup with just one place to gather in public at all, you can see why people have embraced the chance to go again this summer.

There have been challenges. The weather, much as in the UK, has been miserable. The logistics, in the north at least, have been frustrating, with cancellations and confusion. The striking scenes before this match were not of violent incident but of thousands of leathered England fans, who had been on the beers since they woke up, having to walk four miles in a downpour to get from Gelsenkirchen station to the game because there was no other option available. But, again, that’s tournament football – sometimes it throws up unexpected challenges.

Once inside the ground, the real noise began. Perhaps enhanced by the vast ornate rafters of Schalke’s ground, every chant was contained inside the structure, every drumbeat and clap reverberating. When the players emerged and the national anthems were played, Serbia’s fans whistled God Save the King. This duly granted licence to the England support to boo the Serbian anthem, which they did with gusto initially, before losing enthusiasm as the dirge dragged into what seemed like an unnecessary third verse.

From there we went into the Foden song, and before long a gutsy succession of “Juuuuude” calls as England’s main man powered home the opening goal and left his opposing defender in a heap. It wasn’t until the 26th minute that anyone even felt the need to crack out Three Lions, and only in the second half did we hear the national anthem again. The Serbs, largely outsung, for their part stuck to booing Bukayo Saka when he touched the ball and making claims about Kosovo.

Related: Jude Bellingham gives England winning start but Serbia make Southgate sweat

The mood and levels of enthusiasm available to football fans are of course determined by a number of outside factors. The performance of the team on the pitch being the main one, and any bubble of exuberance can quickly be popped. That said, Scottish fans trotting around Düsseldorf this weekend seemed happy enough, perhaps with enough experience to put a bad result into context. There are other things to consider too, like the weather, but also money; Germany is not cheap and it is striking the number of conversations you overhear among often younger England fans about budgeting and saving money where it’s possible. Another tournament habit to get back into, perhaps.

But while the atmosphere of this opening week is likely to be the headiest we will see, it will be enough to serve as a marker. It is a reminder of the culture that exists outside of those who own the game, and by whom it cannot be bought.

Football is about people, primarily, and in Germany this summer the people are back.