Last Friday, a series of violent attacks in Paris left 129 innocent people dead and the watching world in a state of shock. The attacks took place during, and indeed partly targeted, France’s international friendly with Germany. Though both the match itself and football in general are largely irrelevant in such desperate circumstances, the French football association made the brave decision to go ahead with their scheduled friendly against England at Wembley last night.
It’s a little surreal that football has been thrust at the centre of what is a deep-rooted, ultimately political issue, but with suicide bombers attempting to enter the Stade de France on Friday, this was an attack on joy, on freedom of expression and on all the things held dear by European democracy. On an evening where other international friendlies in Belgium and Germany were cancelled amid security fears, Wembley was a beacon of red, white and blue defiance. The world was watching as a sporting show of solidarity underlined the camaraderie between England and France.
You can imagine the mixture of emotions as I boarded the train to Wembley to watch the game. Defiance, excitement, some justified nerves, especially after hearing that another friendly game between Germany and Holland had been cancelled due to an expected terror attack. Although there hasn’t been a serious incident in London since July 7th of 2005, this particular occasion at Wembley, with 80,000 England and France fans expected to attend, seemed like a likely target.
In reality it was the biggest security operation Wembley has ever seen, with countless heavily-armed policemen on patrol, helicopters buzzing overhead, and rumours of plain-clothed SAS officers scattered amongst the spectators. Luckily nothing untoward took place, and the night will instead be remembered for the touching displays of solidarity before and after the match.
After ceremonial reefs were lain on the pitch to remember those who lost their lives in the French capital, the 70,000-strong English crowd joined in with La Marseillaise – something quite unprecedented in international football – offering a stirring rendition in a show of support to the French people. After a minute’s silence, the match began and a strange atmosphere settled on the stadium. This wasn’t the raucous home support normal in London, but instead remained at a level of respectful positivity throughout, with the French fans high up in the corner providing most of the noise.
Lassana Diarra and Antoine Griezmann, both directly affected by the attacks on Friday, came on in the second half to generous applause from the home fans, and it was clear that the entire French team was playing with the weight of a nation’s sorrow on their shoulders.
The match finished 2-0 to England, although it’s difficult to read too much into a result achieved against an under-strength France side who were largely, and of course understandably, going through the motions. A spectacular goal from Dele Alli on his full debut suggests the teenager is one for the present, not just the future. Wayne Rooney’s volley after a quick counter-attack provided more hope for England fans who saw their team completely outplayed against Spain last week. Paul Pogba, on for the second half, gave Wembley a short cameo to remind English fans exactly why he is one of the most highly regarded youngsters in Europe.
In truth the match was a sideshow, and football took a back seat on an evening which represented something infinitely more important than 22 men running around a pitch. It was a poignant reminder that sport can offer us these moments of solidarity. With the Euros due to take place in France next summer, we can only hope that this was the first and last time England and France will stand shoulder to shoulder in mourning.