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"It was a dream" local soccer coach Ektnitphong attends Euro 2016

WORTHINGTON -- Worthington High School boys soccer coach Smitty Ektnitphong had what he calls "the opportunity of a lifetime" in Paris this July. He attended the UEFA European Championship quarterfinal matchup between eventual tournament runners-...

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SUBMITTED PHOTO / Worthington boys soccer coach Smitty Ektnitphong (left) poses with French soccer fans at the UEFA European Championship quarterfinal between France and Iceland in Paris on Sunday, July 3.

WORTHINGTON -- Worthington High School boys soccer coach Smitty Ektnitphong had what he calls “the opportunity of a lifetime” in Paris this July.

He attended the UEFA European Championship quarterfinal matchup between eventual tournament runners-up France and giant-killers Iceland. France won the match 5-2 to move on to the semifinal as Ektnitphong watched in awe from the 14th row of Stade de France.

“The experience was just overwhelming,” he said. “This tournament is almost like the World Cup -- it’s the 24 best teams in Europe. When I went into the stadium for the first time, my heart was pounding. I was like, ‘really, I’m actually here?’”

The soccer coach says he got the tickets as the result of multiple turns of good fortune. He and a friend already had a trip to Europe planned for this summer, the highlight of which was supposed to be a visit to Manchester, England to tour Old Trafford, the home stadium of his beloved Manchester United F.C.

They thought since they were in Europe anyway, they would try to get tickets to one of the preliminary games of Euro 2016. That’s when his friend’s brother stepped in.

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The brother lives in France, working at the American Embassy in Paris, and is a member of the French Football Federation. So he applied for two tickets to the quarterfinal, got them, and offered them to Eknitphong and his friend. They knew they had a shot at getting the tickets, but did not know for sure if they would get them until March. Ektnitphong says that if they had not gotten the 14th-row seats, he may have still paid the steep price to see the game anyway.

“If we didn’t get these tickets we were going to buy tickets off the internet,” he said. “We would have paid $400 just for a round robin (preliminary) game.”

Leading up to the game, Eknitphong did not know which teams he would see play in the quarterfinal. He was hoping to see England and their star-studded lineup which features three players from Manchester United including the legendary captain Wayne Rooney. Unfortunately for him, England was knocked off by Iceland, the tournament’s Cinderella story, in the previous round.

“We were hoping to see France and England, but England lost in the previous round,” he said.

He was, however, happy to see the French team play in front of their rabid hometown supporters in Paris.

“It started getting crazy when we were on the subway going to the stadium,” he said. “The train was so packed, you couldn’t move. Nobody was getting on and nobody was getting off because you couldn’t. When we got to the stop at the stadium, the train emptied and everybody started singing. And then when we got up to the street, it was like an army of French followers. It was loud. It was unbelievable.”

The experience of seeing the game he coaches played at the highest level will impact the way he coaches the Worthington boys soccer team going forward, he says. From his vantage point near the field, he was able to pick up tips from the French team he hopes to apply this season.

“I was able to pick up a few things from them,  especially the formation -- the way they move up and down, the responsibility of each player,” he said. “To see them live, to see them crashing toward the goal and then rush back -- it’s a dream thing.”

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