When a set of barbaric terror attacks struck Paris on the 13th November, killing 129 people and injuring hundreds more, an international game of football between England and France just four days later was the last thing which held any true significance in peoples’ minds. It was at best an awkward afterthought, at worst an awful reminder of what had happened just outside the Stade de France on that tragic night – and what, if not for the great work of the security officials, could’ve occurred inside.
Rightly or wrongly, though, after naturally extensive talks, a tough decision was made. The match somewhat surprisingly was chosen to go ahead. Many people didn’t want it to. I, the holder of a ticket for the meeting between the two countries, was quite possibly one of them.
Whether that was down to a worry of things repeating themselves in London or just because the occasion didn’t feel entirely appropriate at first, I wasn’t sure. In many ways, on the day after the game at Wembley, I’m still not. What I do know now in hindsight however, is that I’m happy it did. And I’m very glad I went.
It ended up being a special night; one very different to any other sporting event I’ve ever gone to. That was heavily reinforced early on upon the sight of the stadium – Wembley’s arch looked beautiful in the three colours of the French flag, while the popular motto of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ was emblazoned onto a screen which dominated the outside of the main structure itself. A small touch, perhaps, but it was one which helped to set the tone of what all this was really about.
The extra security (which was clearly necessary in light of what happened a few days earlier) gave something of an edgy feel to it at first, but fortunately the atmosphere created by the fans of both countries along Wembley Way and then inside the ground overruled that. Rather than fear and trepidation, the air was amiable and full of respect. As it should be.
That was at its most apparent when, in a slight change of protocol, La Marseillaise was played after God Save the Queen instead of before. An anthem with the history and lyrics of defiance, it was fitting in a time like this – and both sets of fans, accompanied by a large display of the French Tricolore in the stadium’s East side, sung at once in togetherness.
A perfectly observed minute’s silence followed that before the game started, although what happened on the pitch from then on is relatively meaningless in the context of everything (though it should be mentioned that there was a very warm applause when Lassana Diarra came onto the pitch as a substitute, following the death of his cousin in the attacks).
Instead, it’s what surrounded the match which has to be focused on. Whatever you thought of the decision beforehand, maybe it was important that this game did go ahead. It doesn’t symbolise an end to the anguish by any means, but it does show that we can grieve while simultaneously moving on and not letting our lives be dictated by fear. And it’s beautiful that, even if only in some small way, football can help us to do that.