Sports

England vs France: A Comfortingly Routine Affair Against a Dark Backdrop

Last night, France travelled to Wembley to play England. It was billed as a significant symbolic event following last week's attacks in Paris, but the reality was a comfortingly normal mid-week international match in London.

by Ben Halls
Nov 18 2015, 1:20pm

PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

"If there are any police officers on the train, can they please make themselves known, I need assistance in removing two passengers," the conductor said in a hurried voice as we arrived in London, causing everyone to sit up ever so slightly. "There are two passengers who have been impeding me from moving through the carriages and they need to be removed."

People relaxed and settled back down to their papers and phones at the banal explanation of needing police help, but how they were immediately set on edge demonstrated the tension amongst those heading to Wembley Stadium. This was the first congregation of its kind since Friday's attacks in Paris that left 129 dead, hundreds more injured, and countless nursing psychological scars. There was defiance, but not without unease.

Arriving at the stadium, worries about safety seemed misplaced. As promised, the whole area was teeming with police: in uniform, on horses, and some armed. It's the first time I'd seen so many armed police officers deployed to the streets of London, holding machine guns and stoically scanning the crowd, since the aftermath of the 7/7 Bombings 10 years ago.

The children going to the game, seeing their international heroes play for the final time in 2015, were unfazed by it all. They were having their pictures taken with the armed officers, who were good sports and happy to go along with the youngsters' excitement.

"They've actually got real guns!" one exclaimed as he was guided through the crowd by his father. There was a sense of wonder in him; no bad memories of London's own dark past, but something which captured the imagination.

The only thing more prevalent than police officers on Olympic Way was media. Every 10 feet was a camera crew from somewhere around the globe, all vying for the perfect frame of the Wembley Arch, lit up in the colours of the French Tricolore. Producers and interviewers called out to anyone looking to share their feelings about the evening in a host of tongues, and those wearing the blue of France were understandably the most eagerly courted.

"The eyes of the world are really here tonight. We were just interviewed for French TV at the bottom of the steps," says England fan Julian Fraser, at the game with his teenage son. "The world's media are down there. It's turned into something incredibly powerful and a gesture more than just a game of football."

Like most at Wembley, he'd had tickets long before last Friday. Also like most, he was never deterred and was excited to be a part of the night.

The police presence was stepped up for the game | PA Images

"I wanted to come before everything happened as a treat for [my son]. [Before Friday] it wasn't anything more meaningful than just a fun night out. Now, it's taken on a more meaningful, more connected gesture," he added.

Julian is far from alone. All of those willing to talk about what the match means share the same feelings.

"First of all we're football fans, and we do football," explains Mark Davis. "Whatever else has happened, and as tragic as it is, we're going to continue to do football. It's taken on a different dimension because of what happened over the weekend, obviously. There is no way—no way—we would take a different view on it."

The game meant a lot to Mark. He teared up as he spoke, still in a suit from work and with a can of beer from the nearby Sainsbury's in hand.

"As much as we're here to come and watch a football match, there's more to it than that, and that's important, isn't it?"

People like Mark and Julian are happy to talk, but many at Wembley aren't. I've been rejected for interviews countless times, and usually they all do the same thing: ignore you, don't break pace, or maybe mutter a passing apology. Asking groups of people to talk before this game was different. They'd stop and look at each other—"Go on, say something!" or "You talk!"—before, as a group, failing to find a voice. They were looking to each other for reassurance, for someone to talk, but nobody could manage the words to describe why they were there.

The French, though, were by far the most vocal and happy to talk.

"I buy [my tickets] yesterday," said French supporter Benjamin, draped in a Tricolore and coming to London to show support for his home country. "Because of the attacks, and because we love football too. It will be a great game, and for the history of football."

"There'll be a lot of people here, 70,000. It's a Legion," added Clement, another French fan.

What they're most excited for—apart from a French win, of course—is for both sets of fans to come together to sing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

"It's really exciting because it's special," said Les Bleus follower Alexander. "It's the first time that a team sings the national anthem of another team, and we are proud and really happy."

The words to the French anthem were displayed so that English fans could join in | PA Images

The fans have fed into the stadium well before kick off, as per instruction, and mill around looking at the line-ups on the screen. "Please show respect to our visitors and your fellow fans," it said beneath, as if there'd be a problem with that.

The much-touted pre-game ceremony was what had been billed: standing ovations and long rounds of applause for the players, who stood arm in arm. It took the England fans until the third line of the anthem to really find their voice, but with the lyrics on Wembley's giant screens, everyone sung along. It was the moment we all hoped it would be, one of those times in sport that makes you realise how connected and similar we all are. These are two countries who still get salty about the Battle of Agincourt, an event that took place 600 years and 24 days ago, and have fallen out countless times before and since. Yet none of that mattered. There was no way that they'd be anything but unified for one night in London.

Sometimes the clichés are true.

There was the same togetherness for the minute's silence, where some players mixed with the opposition while others preferred to share the moment with their teammates. The two teams joining together for a photograph—an image which will no doubt be touted as iconic in the weeks to come—was overdone, backed by the kind of faux-epic music more at home over a trailer for a blockbuster film, but it still brought the stadium alive.

Then, something quite remarkable happened: an ordinary game of football broke out. The fans settled down and chatted amongst themselves, the England band tried to battle the noise the French supporters made, and everyone entertained themselves during lacklustre passages of play with Mexican waves.

The England fans, behind Hugo Lloris in the French goal during the first half and who'd held up coloured paper to make a Tricolore during the pre-match ceremonies, behaved how you'd expect any fans in their situation to do: they balled up their papers and tried to distract the goalkeeper by chucking them at him. One made it all the way past the net, landing on the edge of the 18-yard box, to a large cheer.

Stadium workers clear up the coloured paper thrown at French 'keeper Hugo Lloris | PA Images

England fans didn't hold back in their celebrations when Dele Alli scored a brilliant opener. Fans headed back to the concourse well before half time to get a head start on buying beers. They weren't quick back to their seats either, missing Wayne Rooney's latest record-extending goal.

The stadium, which was visibly only 80% full—especially obvious with a near-empty top tier behind the cameras, along with Wembley's infamously fickle corporate boxes, where patrons prefer to take in the action adjacent to the wine bars and buffet rather than their luxury seats—began emptying by the hour mark. Fans grumbled about having to be up for work the next day and made their excuses. By the 75th minute the exodus was in full force, and when the over-71,000 attendance was read out, there were probably barely 40,000 still there.

Just like any other mid-week England friendly at Wembley, then.

The walk back down Olympic Way was noticeably more relaxed. The camera crews were still there, but far fewer found the desire to talk on the way out; it was late, and they had trains to queue for. Rather than talking about the emotions of the night, the hottest topic of conversation was why Wembley still hadn't found a cure to that inevitable downer: thousand-long lines for trains. Granted, though, the mood was lightened when a cheeky Transport for London employee with a loudspeaker played YMCA by The Village People to the crowd, something that got a few dancers and a lot of laughs.

It was all hard to digest. This night was billed as a huge emotional event, made to signify all of the words which one wants the world to embody as we move on from the attacks in Paris: resilience, defiance, unity.

The honest truth is that what the pre-game ceremonies did better than anything else was catharsis; the release of what was bottled inside people before the game, the words they wanted to say but couldn't find.

PA Images

On the train home there was an advertisement for the Tate Britain, describing the portrait of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais. "Grief has never looked so beautiful," it read. "Quite a paradox, as surely it must be the hardest emotion we have to bear. It is said the only way out of grief is through it. Otherwise it can hold us in depression or send us into a madness that can take lives."

After the madness, which did take so many lives, this match was not everything we were told it would be. This isn't to take away from the symbolic nature of the game, nor the beauty of the pre-match ceremonies, but instead a recognition that, for most, what this Tuesday night in London represented was normalcy.

"The only way out of grief is through it."

There will be those deeply touched, perhaps far more personally than they'd ever admit, who found great solace in the match. But most—the mates out for the game after work, and groups of children being wrangled by stressed parents—were getting their catharsis, reaching their peace, by simply powering through the ugliness and doing what the world would do on an average Tuesday night.

"It's a Legion," as Clement said.

The Legion stood strong, together, and allowed everyone to move towards what we all want: a return to normality.

@BenHalls