LONDON — Walking up Wembley Way on a cool, windy November night in London, the humongous arch which hangs over Wembley Stadium was lit up in the red, white and blue of France.
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The tricolore shone brightly and hung over the entire stadium to remind the fans, players and everybody else in the stadium why we were all at this particular friendly match between England and France.
It was all about honoring the 129 people killed by terrorists in Paris last Friday. About standing together and uniting as one.
Over the past few days I’ve found myself wandering around my house in London humming the French national anthem. Full disclosure, I’ve always been a big fan of La Marseillaise even though I don’t speak French and don’t know what the words of the anthem mean. I’ve often thought when watching it being played before sporting events: “Man, I’m not French but hearing that fires me up.” The English national anthem and others is a little more somber but the French anthem is anything but. At Wembley everyone — the home fans were urged to sing the anthem with the lyrics on the big screens and English newspapers publishing the lyrics on the back pages — got to belt out the famous anthem as one.
Its result, as I’m sure you will agree from the video below, was spectacular.
A few weeks ago I circled Nov. 17 on my calendar: England hosting France at Wembley Stadium. I’ve been looking forward to attending this game for quite some time. It was a chance to see two nations square off who are littered with world-class talent but haven’t faced many tests over the past 12 months due to the fact France automatically qualified for EURO 2016 as hosts and England’s qualifying group was ridiculously weak as they won every single game. This was a chance to see where both teams were at seven months before the European Championships in France began. Then the atrocities occurred in Paris and this game, which was in severe doubt of taking place, took on a whole new meaning.
As it became clear that the French Football Federation wanted it to be played, a swell of emotion and pride arrived throughout both nations. I imagined the sight of French and English fans all coming together as one at Wembley, the home of soccer, to show solidarity and prove to those who carried out the attacks in Paris that they will not win. That was exactly the case on Tuesday. Armed police were deployed by the British government and when another high-profile friendly in Europe, Belgium vs. Spain, was abandoned on Monday due to safety fears the anxiety levels around this game grew a little. But, as I’ve heard many people all over the world say in the past four days: “we can’t live in fear.”
Jumping onto the tube to make the 30-minute journey from my home across London, there was a sense of calm until you got close to stadium.
Walking out of Wembley Park station, Wembley Way was ahead of me and the glistening gladiatorial stadium at the end was a majestic sight to behold decked out in the red, white and blue and the French motto “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” emblazoned across the outside of the venue. The home of the world’s game was ready to show the watching world that not only England and France stood as one against terrorism, but so did the entire planet. A crowd of over 71,000 filled Wembley as English FA officials revealed that only 100 tickets were returned and ticket sales had unexpectedly soared over the weekend with fans wanting to attend the game, a spectacle and occasion which had now become something bigger than a friendly between England and France.
Armed police, something pretty uncommon to see in England, lined Wembley Way and patrolled the side-streets leading up to the stadium. Police helicopters hovered overhead and fans mixed with one another. England fans whistled La Marseillaise and broke out chants of “allez les bleus” as they walked along with their friends, while groups of French supporters also broke out in song.
Inside the stadium, the press room was awash with camaraderie as journalists from across the globe, but chiefly England and France, chatted about the terrible events of last Friday. Soon, the mood turned slightly sour. TVs in the press lounge showed scenes from Hanover as police evacuated the stadium and Germany’s friendly vs. Holland was canceled due to a reported suspicious package at the stadium. After Belgium vs. Spain was canceled the day before, nerves were in the air around Wembley. Fans inside the stadium, overall, seemed to still be in a jovial yet thoughtful mood as they posed for photos with one another before kick off.
In attendance at Wembley where British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the head of the English FA the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William. They led the proceedings before the game along with Roy Hodgson, Didier Deschamps and the heads of the FA and FFF by laying floral tributes for the victims. As the players stood and awaited the French national anthem England’s fans lifted a tricolore mosaic to create a marvelously patriotic scene and a home away from home for the French players. Then, the moment which would help symbolize the togetherness of two neighboring nations: the anthem. La Marseillaise was simply majestic but what was equally, or more so in my eyes, moving was the impeccably observed minute silence as players from both teams gathered around the center circle. Wembley stood silent to remember those killed and it was a real lump in the throat moment.
The game itself was largely uneventful as France’s players looked understandably subdued and England’s largely second-string side impressed with teenager Dele Alli curling in a beauty and Wayne Rooney adding a second as the Three Lions won 2-0. A Mexican wave began in the 26th minute amid the friendly atmosphere as players of both teams helped one another up after falling down and plenty of hugs and high fives were on show. The respect from both sets of players was evident. Chants of “allez les bleus” came from the small contingent of French fans who also sporadically sung La Marseillaise.
Lassana Diarra, whose cousin Asta Diakite was killed in the attacks on Friday, came on as a second half sub and Wembley stood as one and applauded to salute his bravery in the face of personal tragedy.
The mood was somber, reflective and even the goal celebrations from England’s players were low-key. Respect for those lost in Paris was shown throughout the occasion and the English FA should be commended for the fine job they did to honor France’s fallen. After the final whistle France’s players looked relieved the game was over as they huddled together and saluted their fans at one end of the stadium. At that moment the England band began to play La Marseillaise for one final time as the French and English players walked off the pitch together and down the tunnel.
It wasn’t about the game on Tuesday. It was about solidarity and how sport can play a small part in helping to heal a nation in a time of great tragedy.