By Christopher Worrall
In the wake of the Paris atrocities, media both old and new was awash with emotion: fear, dread, sadness, solidarity and support. Within this sea of reaction, at least within my own secluded bay of thoughts, one response played the heartstrings the most beautifully. A distant friend – someone I have not spoken to in person for years – said how, despite what had happened, he and others were visiting the great city the following week to drink, dance and enjoy themselves. This stance of joy in the face of such barbarity touched me greatly; it was through expression of enjoyment that he wanted to show how monsters could never win.
On Tuesday night, Wembley hosted another such collaboration of joyous resistance to the desired fear-mongering of ISIS. Following a sincere pre-match ceremony that combined silent respect with hair-rousing, stadium-wide bellows of neutral national support, both sides and a boisterous crowd dug into a committed game of football backed by supportive celebration. In the scheme of things it may mean little. Political and cultural shifts will no doubt be the things that later historians will turn to when analysing this tragically dark period of twenty-first century history. However, at a time where a response of fear and hate seems all too tangible, this stadium shone as a symbol of unity and optimism against the clouds of concern and callousness.
One of the one hand, both teams gave full-blooded accounts of themselves in a match that, while no classic, was played with an intensity and eagerness that seemed a fitting display of intent in a wake of potential security concerns. Of particular note was the second-half arrival of Lassana Diarra, whose cousin was one of the many lost to the violence, to the cheers of all around and his sudden spirit to engage in a physical yet clean individual performance. The real statement though, hinted at in his arrival, was the reactions and behaviour of the crowd. In what to many was just another game, something warmed the depths of my heart.
Too often, football and its supporters seem weighed down by a reputation for neanderthalism: brutish, bigoted fans watching over-privileged prima donnas kick a ball around. For many, this gross simplification is true, and too often minorities of supporters demonstrate this base behaviour to the detriment of all who watch the game with them. It is these groups, loutish lads (and lasses) screaming abuse, that seem the perfect environment for the kind of xenophobic hate no doubt desired by those who carried out the massacre in the French capital. What Tuesday night showed, more than anything on the pitch, was a desire from an unlikely source to join together in joy and solidarity.
From the cameras panning around the ground to the pictures and videos shared across social media, people were jumping, chatting and cheering with strangers from across the globe. Actions of both sides were celebrated, and the match’s conclusion saw people on and off the pitch embracing and bidding farewell with nothing but good in their hearts. On a global stage, where other games had to be postponed through threats of further violence, Wembley and its temporary inhabitants gave a heartfelt, honest and happy middle-finger to the cowards who seek to incite fear, hatred and misery in civilians merely expressing their own joys and pleasures. Sure, it was only a game and football will no doubt throw up future cases of negative behaviour. But that evening, tens of thousands of strangers experiencing joy as one was a message of public defiance: that terror cannot ever fully defeat optimism. As one, England and France stared back at the horror and hand in hand, with a smile on their faces and renewed warmth in their hearts, told it to fuck off.
England beat France 2-0, with goals from Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney.