As a true sports fanatic, I often find myself being most entertained while watching live sporting events, especially football. It just awakens in me such intense emotions as I witness the most impressive prowess from top class athletes. But the Project Management Geek in me also tries to bring the various experiences I live to the next level by trying to understand how the gear cogs of such a huge event actually work internally to make it look so harmonious from an external point of view. This post reflects on my sporting event insider experience as a volunteer in VIP Services at the UEFA EURO 2016.
Why did I want to volunteer?
It all started back in 2014 when I had the chance to travel to Brazil to attend the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world. After having had the chance to watch six games at the legendary Estadio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, I came back to Montreal with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. The World Cup experience was so memorable on all aspects - whether it was the matches, location, people I have met and friends I have made - that I did not want it to end. When you are on Planet Football for a full month you never want to leave. And that was exactly what Rio de Janeiro was for the most intense vacation I have had so far. Back from my trip, I of course wanted to repeat the experience as early as it could be and in any possible form. And what better way to understand how something works than to actually live it. By combination of circumstances, I was lucky enough to volunteer twice - at the 2014 U-20 FIFA Women's World Cup and the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup - in the host city of Montreal - my hometown at the time - as both tournaments were organised in Canada on consecutive years. In these events I had the chance to be respectively appointed to the Transportation team and the Media Services team.
As I have recently relocated to Europe, I knew that the next UEFA European Championship was to take place the following year (2016) in France. Of course, both timing and geographic proximity converged into what could be a brilliant opportunity for me to participate to yet another major sporting event on Planet Football. My friend Shorty was also supposed to travel with me to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but then decided to withdraw because of her upcoming student exchange six months later. Relocating for six months in Europe with our weak Canadian Dollar makes the experience of a lifetime very pricy so I could completely understand where she was coming from. But, there was no way we would pass on that opportunity to live this experience together for a second time. And so we have decided to apply in July 2015 - one year before Opening Match - to the UEFA EURO 2016 volunteering program in the host city of Lille Métropole.
Why Lille Métropole over other host cities (e.g. Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, etc)?
The reason I chose this city was obvious to me. First of, I know the city very well from the six months I have spent there for my international student exchange back in 2009. So I still know some people living there which I hoped at the time they would help me find accomodation for the first two weeks of the tournament. This option has proved itself to be a huge disappointment. Also, Lille was a strategic choice as it is more easily accessible from Nuremberg than any other host city (except for Paris). Let's face it, with both opening and final matches being played at the Stade de France, it was obvious that there would be a substantial amount of applicants for this host city as opposed to Lille Métropole. Therefore, the odds of getting selected for the role I wanted were higher with my application being directed towards Lille Métropole as opposed to Paris. Shorty also had her international student exchange in Lille in 2015. Going back to Lille represented for her a golden opportunity to reunite with her distance relationship boyfriend for the summer. Therefore, we have both agreed to apply together to the same host city.
Getting ready for duty
And so began my journey on Match Day minus 365 as I applied to become a volunteer in the host city of Lille Métropole, in the North of France. In December 2015, we both had confirmation of our participation to the volunteering program after a rigorous selection process including interviews through videoconference, language tests and criminal background check among other steps. I was appointed to the VIP Services team and Shorty to the Accreditations team. Now was time to start planning the logistics for our stay on Planet Football. Shorty had already planned to spend a full three month in Europe as she just completed her Bachelor's degree and wanted to spend as much time as possible with her boyfriend. He was generous enough to help me find a free room minutes away from the Stade Pierre Mauroy, the gladiator's arena that was soon going to host six merciless duels between nations of the old continent. Isn't it funny how sometimes people you have litterally just met go out of their way and go the extra mile to help you while some other people you have considered friends for years won't even move their pinkie for you if it means their comfort will be slightly compromised.
I traveled back and forth between Nuremberg and Lille to follow different trainings about UEFA, the European Championship, VIP Services and my roles and responsibilities on and off match days. To be honest, I was not so impressed with the level of information given during these trainings as I though they did not necessarily account for all the money I have spent for flight, train and bus tickets to take part to this experience. I thought most of the information given was rather superficial and none of the trainings absolutely required a face-to-face meeting. When you book tickets in advance, arrange for accomodation, take days off to participate to the so-called mandatory meeting - or else my participation will be void - then, realise that the trainer reads PowerPoint slides for six hours and does not have any answers to your technical questions... In these types of situations, it is very important to remember that you are doing all of this for the experience and not to judge the process.
Things you should know about volunteering at a global sporting event
Many people asked me how I managed to find get this opportunity. Most of them ignored which process to follow and - most importantly - that you have to apply for it approximately one full calendar year in advance. So, I thought I could describe my journey so that people understand what it implies to be a volunteer in a world class sporting event. If you wish to be a volunteer too, there are a few things you should definitely know about this experience that will certainly contribute to managing your expectations.
(1) The Application Process starts one year before the event
So don't wake up a few weeks prior to Match #1 with a sudden epiphany on how cool it would be to see many games for free. If you are lucky, you will most likely get to see some games for free. But, there is no guarantee to it as it highly varies based on several factors. The type of mission you are appointed to will dictate whether you will be busy during the game or not. If you are a volunteer at the stadium rather than the hotel or the airport, you obviously have better chances at watching games with still no guarantee whatsoever.
(2) A uniform will be provided to you and you can keep it
This uniform typically includes some adidas branded goodies such as t-shirts/polos, pants/shorts, jacket, socks, cap, sneakers, backpack, etc (as if I did not have enough of these in my collection already). If you are lucky enough to be selected for the VIP Services mission, you will also receive a formal uniform including shirts, pants, belt and a blazer.You will be responsible for own commuting and accomodation. The organising committee is neither responsible for ensuring your commute from your home location to the host city, nor is it to find or pay for your accomodation. Although, should the tournament have a sponsorship agreement with the host city's transportation body, it will reimburse public transportation on duty day. Food and beverages will also be provided on duty day. Quality may vary from one tournament/host city to another. "Panem et circenses", or "Bread and Games" as they say!
(3) You might see a few celebrities from very close
You are taking part to a major sporting event with premium media coverage. So, you will definetly run into few stars. Whether these celebrities are from the so-called Football Family; Legend Athletes; Political Figures or Movie Stars, the important thing is to keep it cool. You are here to provide a service to these people. As much as it is very tempting to ask for an autograph or to take a selfie with them, you just have to resist to the temptation of trying and making your friends jealous with your cool life, as opposed to simply enjoying the moment and make a true memory out of your experience. Remember "Enjoying the moment"? Crazy idea, right?
(4) You will make tons of friends!
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But, it always strikes me how when you first meet people you never expect these unacquainted individuals will build such strong relationships with you on such a short amount of time. And yet, I have met some great people from different countries, professions and age groups. And there lies the infinite power of sports to my eyes! To be able to unite people who have nothing in common through our common love and passion for the beautiful game!
(5) In the end, it will all be worth every effort and you will remember this experience for the rest of your life!
I get often asked why I always decide to take from my own time and money to participate to these events while I could use my vacation days to relax off of work in a much more exotic location. Well, to these people I always answer that this is how much of a sports enthusiast I am! These sporting events provide me with the thrill that cannot be replicated by any vacation at a beach resort (which is not my style of travel anyway). Besides the obvious excitement that provides such an event in a host destination, the uniqueness of the event makes it memorable on its own. The way I see it, whether it's the World Cup or the EURO, these events represent a once in a lifetime experience whereas any other exotic trip will still be available to me in a few years from now (except for the Maldives, sadly). Any person who has ever witnessed me talking about my experiences in Rio de Janeiro and in Lille has probably seen the same sparkles in my eyes as the ones from when I talk about Project Management or any subject I am deeply passionate about!
At the end of this incredible adventure, I reminisce about all these moments I have lived - moments of laughter, sadness, uncertainty, confusion... - and all that comes to mind - as a subtle smile on the corner of my mouth slowly appears - is that famous chant from the Wales supporters saying: "Don't take me home"!
'Panem et circenses' (literally "bread and circuses", often translated as "bread and games") is a Latin term used in ancient Rome to denounce the deliberate use made by the Roman emperors distributions of bread and organization of games or any other form of entertainment in order to distract public attention from more important matters.