Football – trivial, silly old football – suddenly takes on an enhanced meaning. The arrival of the French national team in London tomorrow to face England at Wembley has acquired unintended importance. It is no longer about the contest but the message, and not just one of defiance. The real significance of this fixture lies in what it says about the way we live.
Sport, like the arts and indeed all leisure pursuits, ultimately expresses the degree to which any society is civilised. It can only take place in an ordered environment free of fear, want and hostility. And in playing this fixture tomorrow the Western liberal values that came under attack by those murderous, medieval barbarians in Paris stand defiantly, beautifully proud.
It is on occasions such as these that sport comes into its own, providing a focal point around which we might gather to demonstrate a spirit that will not be cowed by the violence of the thug.
The point was made yesterday by one Muslim commentator, who argued that the spontaneous gathering of people in Paris, London, New York and beyond is received like an arrow through the heart of the jihadist since it reveals not a community riven by fear but one steadfast in its beliefs.
The perpetrators of the Paris atrocities want to see a city in retreat, in lockdown. Since it is necessary to bring order and control to the streets, the military presence in the French capital is understandable, but what this event has shown is how broad is the church established by the liberal values that underpin the world the extremist seeks to destroy.
And so London is able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Paris to stage a sporting event that demonstrates unity, strength, defiance, compassion, inclusion and ultimately optimism.
As many as 80,000 people gathered in one place, inviting the world to examine the make-up of the crowd, of the teams, a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-faith bunch at peace with one another: what could be more threatening to the perverted ideology of the rabid shooter than a community accepting of difference?
It is into the arms of the tolerant “West” that people of the Muslim faith across the Middle East and North Africa are prepared to risk their lives to walk, fleeing the brutal dogma and lawlessness of the jihadi bandits tearing up their own communities.
The relatives and friends of the 200,000 that have already perished in the Syrian conflict cannot even imagine a society that might create space for any kind of leisure time. Let the “brave” jihadi soldiers lining up to replace the miserable wretches turned to dust by the French military watch as arms are joined around Wembley Stadium, two nations speaking in a different tongue coming together to show what kind of life is possible when freedom and tolerance lie at the heart of the piece.
Strip the political messaging from this meeting. Imagine Friday had never happened and what you see is a society at play, one that is so beautifully ordered and in the main justly governed that it can afford to devote time to matters of such mind-boggling insignificance as a football match. How those poor, blighted souls in Syria, Iraq and Arab North Africa would love to be detained thus on a Saturday afternoon, idly arguing the toss about which team is better than the next.
In this blissful state we routinely meet, unconcerned about the basic essentials of life that are taken for granted. That a good proportion of us are able to earn a living playing sport, a further group sustain themselves passing judgement on those that hop, skip and jump, and the wider community turn up to watch for their own entertainment says something profound about the society that we have made for ourselves.
And so the match between England and France tomorrow becomes a marvellous restating of the blessed state in which we live, held together by enlightened mores and shared beliefs.
How marvellous that the Tricolore should fly above Wembley, that the red, white and blue of France should colour the fabled arch, that the people of England should sing the Marseillaise. What a rebuke this is to lethal evil that visited Paris on Friday.
Thus a game of football is a fitting parable for our times, and given the circumstances, arguably the most important single sporting event since the mythical coming together of German and British troops on the Western Front in the Christmas Truce of 1914.
The symbolism of the occasion is undeniable. When Roy Hodgson and Didier Deschamps lead out their teams tomorrow the cheers that greet them will be heard around the world, a magnificent two fingers to the sinister forces that deal so readily in death and destruction.
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