- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) - Protected by an unprecedented security operation, the European Championship opened Friday with a reassuringly peaceful showpiece at the Stade de France and the French victory the hosts sought after an anxious build-up to a month of soccer festivities.

Around 80,000 fans watched Dimitri Payet make a stunning impact on his tournament debut for France at the age of 29, scoring one after setting up the opening goal in a 2-1 victory over Romania.

“It was a little bit tense and everyone around me was very nervous, but with the last goal it was a liberation,” 23-year-old fan Baptiste Chevet said as “Merci Payet” was being sung by compatriots leaving the stadium. “We are strong together.”

With each French success in the national stadium, the painful memories slowly heal of the night seven months ago when the venue was targeted by suicide bombers as the team played Germany.

Suicide bombers near the stadium killed one bystander as a wave of attacks claimed 130 lives in total across the French capital on the night of Nov. 13. The country has been under a state of emergency since then, requiring tight security to cope with the anticipated arrival of more than one million soccer fans.

“Everything has been done to make sure the match ran as smoothly as possible - both for the teams and supporters,” France coach Didier Deschamps said through a translator. I hope this will be a footballing festival … there is so much passion and fervor behind the national team.”

French President Francois Hollande praised the country’s transport and security services for their handling of the opening match.

“Everybody has kept to the rules - and that’s very important,” Hollande said. “There are 20,000 Romanians here who have also been subjected to the same checks and they completely understood.”

There was a mood of defiance among fans at the stadium north of Paris.

Security agent Samuel Leclercq is part of the 90,000-strong force of police, soldiers and private guards assembled to protect the biggest sporting event in France since the 1998 World Cup.

“That day we saw fear in people’s eyes,” Leclercq said, recalling the Nov. 13 attacks. “I saw a father hold his daughter, he was really frightened. Now we look at the fans and people’s attitude and we spot the odd one out right away.”

Fans from near and far have not been deterred from traveling to France to see the first expanded 24-team European Championship, featuring 51 matches spread across 10 stadiums.

“We live in a free country and we are here to party and nobody will stop us from partying,” France fan Dominik Kovacic said. “We are here to have fun.”

Easing any apprehension, some gun-wielding police officers posed for selfies with fans.

The security operation didn’t feel intrusive to one fan, who has flown in from Myanmar to spend a few days at Euro 2016.

“It’s good for our safety,” 35-year-old Kyaw Zaw Han said. “I feel safe … it’s very exciting.”

As they drank beer in the hours before kickoff, some home fans were wrapped in Tricolors and others were painted in the blue, white and red of the French flag.

“We don’t care about terrorism,” France fan Nicolas Tommeray said. “We just want a victory (by the team) and to enjoy.”

The message from hairdresser Gerald Ge was direct: “We are not afraid.”

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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