PARIS — As fans await Friday’s kickoff of the 2016 UEFA Euro soccer tournament — among the most anticipated and popular sporting events in Europe — French officials are bracing for the worst.
The Union of European Football Associations tournament — hosted by France this year — will officially open at the Stade de France, the same Paris venue where Islamic State militants detonated suicide bombs in November.
Since the attacks, which left 130 dead across Paris, an official “state of emergency” has remained in effect. But many people wonder whether French authorities have done enough to stop another terrorist strike.
Some, including the U.S. and British governments, see the tournament as a major target for Islamic State and al-Qaeda operatives: hundreds of thousands of spectators packed in enclosed spaces, and an anticipated audience of billions watching live around the world.
Authorities believe that the same terrorist cell of Islamic State militants that attacked Paris in November and Brussels in March had initially planned an attack on Euro 2016.
After the Brussels attacks, Mohamed Abrini, the “man in the hat” seen in surveillance footage at the Brussels Airport before his companions detonated suicide bombs, reportedly told investigators that Euro 2016 had been the group’s ultimate target.
In late May, a recorded message attributed to Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the official spokesman for the Islamic State, threatened a “month of calamity” for Western “nonbelievers” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started Sunday and ends July 5.
The message also urged European Muslims to carry out attacks on European civilians.
In an interview, Jean-François Martins, who is in charge of tourism and sports for the French capital as a special assistant to Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said authorities have taken every possible precaution.
“Each weekend in France, we have a football game,” he said. “We know how to do it.”
“We are doing everything to prevent a terrorist attack, and we are also equally preparing ourselves to respond to one,” Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, told reporters earlier this month.
To measure prevention mechanisms and police response times, the government has staged numerous simulated terrorist attacks.
But a test of security measures at the Stade de France late last month undermined the government's initiatives: At the end of a match, fans were still able to overrun security, as well as enter the stadium with prohibited devices such as fireworks and smoke bombs.
France is under “a very high level of threat, and yet no precise plan has been detected,” lamented Michel Delpuech, the regional police chief in Lyon.
On Monday, Ukrainian authorities announced the arrest of a 25-year-old Frenchman on charges of attempting to smuggle firearms and weapons into France for a series of attacks allegedly planned for the month of the tournament.
According to Ukrainian security officials, the suspect — later identified only as Grégoire M. — had amassed 275 pounds of dynamite, two rocket-propelled grenades, five Kalashnikov rifles, more than 5,000 cartridges and 20 balaclavas.
French investigators on Tuesday disputed the Ukrainians’ account of a terrorist plot, telling Reuters that the suspect was more likely involved in a smuggling operation.
Still, the month-long tournament presents a formidable security challenge.
Unlike the Olympic Games — typically held in one urban area — the Euro tournament takes place at venues in 10 cities across France. Fifty-one games will be played between Friday and July 10.
About 100,000 security personnel will be deployed to guard the sporting venues.
In Paris, the fan zone will be at the base of the Eiffel Tower, an area of 130,000 square meters — more than 32 acres — where about 92,000 fans are expected to turn out, Martins said. The Paris fan zone claims to feature the world's largest-ever outdoor video screen.
The extra security precautions there will include, most prominently, a heightened police presence, with about 1,500 police and security officers — about one officer per 65 fans. Metal detectors, electronic magnetic controls and security cameras will scrutinize everyone who attempts to enter, he said.
France will also stage the annual Tour de France bicycle race in July, another event that spans many locations throughout the country for weeks.
Speaking Sunday on French radio, President François Hollande argued for hosting the games as planned.
“We have invested all the means to succeed, and we must not allow ourselves to be pressured by the threat,” he said.
Martins echoed that sentiment: “If we stop living, if we stop celebrating football, it will be a victory for them, a victory for the terrorists."