Shoulder to Shoulder, They Stood in Defiance of the Terrorists

The game brought the two old rivals shoulder to shoulder to honour the dead of Paris and defy their murderers.

Published: 18th November 2015 07:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2015 07:57 AM   |  A+A-

Antoine Griezmann France_AP

France's Antoine Griezmann walks towards floral tributes during the international friendly soccer match between England and France at Wembley Stadium in London, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. | AP

LONDON: WEMBLEY was meant to be decked in pink for this Breast Cancer Care international but ended up red, white and blue for the saddest reasons.

England vs France, not normally a fixture cordiale, brought the two old rivals shoulder to shoulder to honour the dead of Paris and defy their murderers.

Led by Prince William, who was among those who laid floral tributes in front of the dug-outs, and David Cameron, English football expressed its solidarity with France before a game in which the result mattered little but the symbolic value was felt in Paris and far beyond.

In Hanover, meanwhile, the Germany-Holland friendly, which Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to attend, was called off an hour before kick-off after police received a "concrete threat", 24 hours after Belgium versus Sweden was also cancelled.

To imagine an England fan singing La Marseillaise, with its blood-curdling lyrics, would have required some leap until 129 people were massacred in a series of attacks that started at the Stade de France. But England fans wrapped their tongues as best they could around the revolutionary anthem, which followed God Save the Queen for dramatic emphasis, in a break with protocol.

Both sets of players then stood together in perhaps the most moving passage of the night. Les Bleus had insisted on honouring this fixture, despite the obvious temptation to pull out, and here found comfort among their fellow professionals in England, who will be adversaries again at next summer's European Championship in France.

Four days after the strikes against Paris the traditional Anglo-French frostiness was put to one side as the Wembley arch was cast in the colours of the Tricolore, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" glowed from England's home stadium and the two sides staged an extraordinary show of unity before a "friendly" international that felt more like a long consoling hug between cross-channel neighbours.

Breast cancer, the intended beneficiary of this game, stepped aside to allow the victims of Islamist terrorism to be mourned and its aims to be rejected. This is the sheer strangeness of our times, and it will be a long road back to normality.

Amid heightened security, with armed police patrolling the approaches to the stadium, Wembley and the FA laid on an emotional 10-minute ceremony.

It started with a display by the The Band of the Coldstream Guards, a parade of the two national flags, and the laying of floral tributes by the Duke, the two team managers, Roy Hodgson and Didier Deschamps, and officials from the French FA and government, as well as Greg Dyke, the FA chairman.

The arrival of a giant Tricolore while the stadium PA played Three Lions prompted passionate applause from England fans at one end of the ground.

The connection between France's team and the Paris tragedy was authentic and intense.

The attacks started when a jihadist blew himself up at Gate D of the Stade de France after a security check revealed him to be wearing a suicide vest. Later a cousin of Lassana Diarra, the France midfielder, was killed during the shootings in central Paris, and the sister of Antoine Griezmann, a striker, escaped the massacre at the Bataclan theatre. Both Diarra and Griezmann started on the bench against England.

Meanwhile, Javier Pastore, a star player at Paris Saint Germain who was away on international duty with Argentina, revealed that two of his friends were killed at the Bataclan, and confessed to misgivings about returning to France.

So there was nothing contrived about framing this fixture as the first cultural response to the events of Friday night: an affirmation that a way of life could not be broken.

 FA sources say Wayne Rooney, the England captain, was eager to contribute in the build-up to the game, suggesting, for example, that the two sides interlock for the anthems (one Englishman, one Frenchman, one English and so on).

France, though, wanted to be next to one another for the Marseillaise before the squads came together.

 "It shows France wants to show these terrorists they're standing strong against them, and we have to support that," Rooney said before the action started.

Fewer than a hundred tickets were returned by supporters anxious for their safety, and the FA claimed there was a late run for seats, though the attendance was below the 90,000 capacity.

 Outside, before kick-off, armed police walked in pairs through the crowds and unnerved some fans walking up Wembley Way. One supporter left a bunch of 12 cream roses underneath the Bobby Moore statue, as the officers holding Heckler & Koch guns stood metres away. This is the new language of sports security: assault rifles, semi-automatic Glock 17 9mm pistols, Taser X26s and lightweight kevlar bullet-proof vests.

 Mark Stevens, 39, who brought his seven-year-old son, said: "On our journey up here on the train from Bath, I explained to my son what had happened in Paris. We are glad to be here today. It's about so much more than football. It chills you to the bones to see the armed police but I'm glad they're here."

The bond between English and French football is tighter than a cartoon reading of the political relationship might suggest.

Arsene Wenger's arrival as Arsenal manager 19 years ago helped transform the Premier League and Thierry Henry is one of the greatest foreign players to have performed in England. Patrick Vieira, Eric Cantona and Robert Pires are other luminaries to have graced English football pitches. French journalists said this show of support from England and the FA will have brought some small comfort to people back home: a small reminder that France is not alone.

Jimmy Hill, one of the English game's best-known figures, was fond of saying after the talking had run its course: "It's time to get the ball out." This is what England and France finally did on a sad but reassuring night in London, and an ominous one in Germany.


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