On Tuesday, France took on England in an international “friendly” at Wembley Stadium in what turned out to be an emotional affair for Les Bleus (a nickname for the French soccer team). The event took place soon after the country’s capital faced the wrath of a group of people hell-bent on taking humanity to the precipice with heinous acts that often leave a trail of blood and despair.
Football—or soccer, as it is known around these parts—is a unique game with a unique set of vocabulary that is completely different to the terms that are more commonplace in North America. Here, managers are called “gaffers,” embarrassing moments or errors are called “howlers,” and games are called “fixtures.”
However, in the midst of this extensive collection of terms that “football” uses, there was one simple word that perfectly described the meeting between the two sides on Tuesday night.
In most cases, such a match would be called an exhibition, where nothing was worth fighting for, just a game between two teams whose managers were trying to see which players would fit their philosophy in the long term and would be ready to give everything to the team when the European Championships kick off next summer (France will be hosting the Euros this time around).
But on this night, the game did not feel like an exhibition, and both teams were playing for everything.
Four days after terrorists killed 129 people in the worst attacks in the history of Paris since the Second World War, and just an hour after another threat had led to the cancellation of another high-profile game in Europe (between Belgium and Spain), 44 players walked out of the tunnel onto the field. Normally, it is only the starting XI players who take the field, but this time around, there were 44 men standing in solidarity in what was a show of defiance that made the game much bigger than two sets of players fighting for the ball.
Soon after, coaches from both teams joined Prince William in laying flowers on the sideline as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives in Paris. And when it was time for “La Marseillaise” (the French national anthem) to be played, it was a sobering experience when almost everyone inside the stadium stood up and sang together.
“My French is so bad they might prefer I didn’t,” Graham McLauchlan, an England fan, had said with a smile earlier on. “But I will. This game is something special.”
There were a few players who had tears in their eyes. French midfielder Lassana Diarra, who lost his cousin in the attacks at the Bataclan, was clearly devastated but had the demeanor of a man unwilling to yield in the aftermath of a family tragedy.
“We came because we care,” said Julien Lemaire, a French fan from near Calais. “We came because we wanted to be together.”
While cancelling the match would have been understandable, both French and English players and their respective federations wanted to play. French captain Hugo Lloris played a big role in making the friendly happen, knowing that not playing the game would be equivalent to caving in to the demands of a sadistic bunch of individuals that has already threatened more of the same in the coming days.
England won the game 2-0. Young Delli Alli scored a screamer—another English term for an amazing shot from distance. On any other night, the goal would have been the highlight of the evening. On Tuesday, however, it was just a small part of something bigger: humanity’s will to fight its own demons in unison.