For the next three weeks, small corners of Britain will be occupied by small armies of footballers about to do battle in Euro 96. In the North- east, they've got the Romanians and the French...
There is an unblemished corner of Northumberland, at the foot of Hadrian's Wall, where the woodpigeons coo softly and the pavements are littered with cherry blossom; the only signs of life are the sheep, a football pitch overgrown with buttercups and a 17th-century inn, which is being transformed by the invasion of the French football team for Euro 96.

When Graham Kelly, the chief executive of the Football Association, outlined his hopes that the Euro 96 championship would be "a celebration of an English way of life", there were scoffs: which particular brand was he referring to? Beer-sodden pubs, laddism and the dreaded British hooliganism?

So Mr Kelly must be delighted that the French have picked the village of Chollerford as their base; and he would surely glow as brightly as the Romanian team's shiny track suits at the sight of their goal-keeper and striker playing croquet on an English lawn near Darlington where they have chosen to stay.

The 15 visiting teams to Euro 96 bring with them 330 players and 600,000 fans to British shores. The battle for the best locations and hotels for the teams has proven a preliminary contest in its own right. When the Italian team tried to reserve the Mottram Hotel near Manchester, they found the Germans had got their first.

It is the French and the Romanians, however, who have emerged on top in the Euro invasion. The two teams, who will meet on the pitch at St James' Park in Newcastle on Monday, have each taken over idyllic corners of England, where their national flags are fluttering in the breeze and unlikely loyalties are being formed among the locals.

At Redworth Hall in County Durham, a converted 17th-century mansion, the Romanian team is unmistakable. Sultry, pouting young men slink around the hotel in their red, yellow and blue track suits, under the permanent gaze of coaches and officials.

The Romanian FA is anxious that the players should be protected from the glare of publicity. The Romanian team were due to visit the Gateshead Metro Centre, the largest in Europe, but the trip was cancelled over concern that the track suits would make the players too noticeable. But despite their initial reticence, the stars agree to exclusive interviews on their hopes and fears for Euro 96, and their views on England.

In a corridor of Redworth Hall, "one of the world's best wing backs" is sucking on a lollipop. Dan Petrescu, who plays for Chelsea, is among the few who are able to celebrate the English way of life in English: "We play tactical, we pass the ball around," he informs me. "No, we don't eat beetroot for breakfast, but we do eat a lot of feta cheese."

"Who gave you the lollipop?

"My friend."

"Is that part of the official diet?"

"No. Would you like some?"

"No thank you."

In a bid to bring just a little of the Romanian way of life to Darlington, the team did bring its own chef, beetroot or no beetroot. Their chef is known as Ice Man among the locals, because he is often seen carrying buckets of ice around the hotel (he may also be the team's physiotherapist, but no one is saying for sure).

The team eats dinner separately from the other guests in the Kelvington Suite, where they dine on fish, broccoli, chips, bread and feta, and a large pile of fruit. One of the few special pleas made to the hotel was for the right kind of feta, following a bitter disappointment in the United States during the World Cup where supplies were poor.

Ioan Sabau, a tanned midfielder, picks up a banana. "Yes, England is very nice," he says. "But the weather is bad, windy and cold. The hotel is nice. It's very different to Romania, very green. Very green." He adds: "No I didn't eat beetroot for breakfast. The food we eat comes from all over, not England. Bananas are not English." His sultry expression breaks momentarily. "I've never seen a banana that comes from England. Ha ha ha."

The king of the team is sitting with Gaby, the second coach, in the bar. "He's just got an aura about him," says one local pointing him out. Gheorghe Hagi, the "tremendously gifted but temperamental play-maker" clasps his hands together in a manner that suggests that this is indeed the case. He is known in Romania as the Maradona of the Carpathians.

"This is Hagi," announces Gaby adoringly, and he adds: "It is very nice to be here. This is the country where football began."

Hagi looks over as Gaby offers to translate. He gestures with his hand to the outside, where the sharp lawns spread out to perfectly cut hedges, which lead down to rolling hills dotted with sheep. Hagi speaks. "England is a very beautiful country, with a very great history," he says, and looks away again.

When the French meet the Romanians at St James' Park, the locals from Chollerford and surrounding villages will be among those supporting them, including pupils from the school where they are training. But the Romanians will have an equally strong following among the locals at Redworth Hall.

"Here we are surrounded by a team of players that I'd barely heard of apart from those in the World Cup," says Alan Grey, a legal executive. "The rest were all Popoffs and Crackoffs and Sawnoffs. But suddenly you're swimming in the same pool as them, and you're going to be watching them live on television."

He adds: "I'll be putting a fiver on the local team, the Romanians that is. They came fourth in the World Cup, so they must stand a chance in the European. I'll put some money on the English as well, but with the Romanians at 12 to 1 I could make a bit of money."

Craig Morley, a newsagent who has played semi-professional football, says: "When you're sitting with your family you can say, I was sat there having a pint with them... well, they were drinking coffee actually, I was having the pint."

Back in the village of Chollerford, not so much sleepy as unconscious, Les Bleus (as the French team is known) will have most support from the George Hotel, somewhat cut off from village life, where they have taken over all 48 rooms. Last week the staff could be heard practising phrases in their final French lessons before the team arrived.

"We're just really looking forward to them coming now," says Steve Grant, the manager. "And we're hoping for them to go all the way. A France / England final is our hope. Then, of course, patriotism takes over."

As the sun bounces off the Tyne outside it is almost possible to imagine any of Les Bleus, including Zinedine "Zorro" Zidane, the pounds 4m midfielder from Bordeaux, sitting back after a Continental breakfast and musing "this sceptred isle ... set in a silver sea".

Despite the enthusiasm of staff at the hotel, there was bewilderment elsewhere. There had been little advance warning about the impending arrival of the French team and the media circus that would follow: just a notice at the nearest post office in the neighbouring village of Humshaugh warning people that a television station would be setting up a satellite at the surgery.

In the sunshine outside, Alan Ritson, a retired quarryman, says cheerfully: "They won't be getting any frogs legs round here, but it's fine by me they're coming."

At the newsagent's, Lesley Anderson says: "They're closing the George from the public for them. And we won't be able to use the sauna and the pool there."

"You don't use them anyway, though," says Pierce Grant.

"I know," she says.

"You just don't like the idea of not being able to use them," he adds.

Mr Grant continues: "It won't be a cultural shock to us. We won't see them. They'll be cosseted. Whereas if they take a stroll up to the Crown, that'll be a cultural shock for them, a scruffy little English boozer. But it's good for the kids. I'll take them down to watch the practice matches."

There are refurbishments going on at the Crown pub, although not in honour of the French. "I don't think people realise what a big thing it's going to be. Last Saturday was the village fete. That's the most exciting day of the year for us, that's as big as it gets. We never see anybody here," says Jane Buck, the landlady.

There were also a few oblivious locals in Haydon Bridge, where the French are training, a few miles down the road. The small town, remote in winter when the snow falls, will be transformed into an international media centre.

"The French coming here are they? Well I'll be following all of it," says Sid Thompson, a retired miner enjoying a bottle of brown ale at the Anchor Inn. "So the French are coming here are they? When are they coming?"

L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, announced grandly that the national team would be practising at the "Haydon Bridge Stadium". David Thompson, headmaster of the local secondary school, explains this is, in fact, the local school pitch, and as he does so a few local ducks from the pond walk over it.

But Mr Thompson, who is searching for a flag-pole to fly the tricolore from, has thrown himself into the role of ambassador of Haydon Bridge with zeal. "We're all behind this 100 per cent. The chances of anything like this happening again are small, it won't be until the end of the 21st century," he says.

When the teams set off for Newcastle they will experience a very different brand of English life, although locals in the city are confident that Euro 96 will be a well-behaved celebration of football. A local policeman says there is one problem he can anticipate: "The only trouble I can see is the girls playing off the local boys against the foreigners in the Bigg Market. The lads'll be saying, `I'm from Paris, honest pet.' "

How to be nice to Europeans, page 18