It was a gesture, no more and no less. Football shouted in the face of terror and we gave thanks for that. Never more so than when the awkward English attempts to sing La Marseillaise were put away and the players stood together in reflection a few yards in front of the wreaths; Andre-Pierre Gignac’s elbow propped on Adam Lallana’s shoulder; Chris Smalling’s arm slung around Hugo Lloris; Raheem Sterling and Paul Pogba finding a similar kind of connection.
But the real world was only just beyond the sanctity of the stadium. The London Underground knows better than most the impossibility of deterring those who come armed with explosive and nails, intent on shattering society’s surface calm. There was a mere one or two officers on each platform of the Metropolitan Line platforms and the route up to Wembley Park last night: mere inflections in the vast sweep of people heading north. Goodwill and spirit can only go so far and the events in Hannover – another foiled attempt to bring carnage to football last night – served to reinforce that fact. The superficial impressions of safety - the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe standing in the press lounge in high-vis jacket an hour before kick-off – were only choreography.
Football did what it can, though, and that was something incredibly potent. The Football Association had not been preparing for a crisis, which they have handled with immense dignity these past four days. An insert stitched inside the cover of the match programme was the only way of acknowledging the events of last Friday. It sat proud of the the programme’s pages so it would not be overlooked. The rest of the content – Joe Hart proclaiming that “nothing matters unless we do well in France” and Lloris describing the “exciting” weight of French expectation – was so desperately unimportant now.
In the tunnel, English players did what English players could to offer a sign of fraternity. Intelligent though he is, Chris Smalling is not always a man with the mot juste but he was the first to seek out and embrace Lloris in the tunnel. So, too, did Hart.
Of all the French players, it was Lloris who seemed to be struggling the most. He stared ahead implacably, oblivious to the English mascot peering up at him. The small gestures said the most when Wayne Rooney approached the goalkeeper, after the ceremonies had been dispensed with. A fraternal tap on the backside from the Englishman as the two men exchanged pendants. Both listened earnestly as the referee, Jonas Eriksson, went through the motions of telling them that they were here to conduct themselves. Rooney had his left arm around Yohan Cabaye as they strolled off after the first half. It was not football as we have come to know it.
The French players knew that the struggle would lie beyond the anthems and the collective embrace, in the moment when they were asked to show intent and play. It should not be forgotten that this is the side which has been showing England for decades what a spirit of multiculturalism and inclusion looks like. It was the nation which fielded Raoul Diagne in 1931, in a friendly game against Czechoslovakia: the first black player to represent a then colonial power at international level, without a word of hostility heading his way. It was a full 47 years later that England saw a black man wearing the national jersey and there was no sense of shame that Viv Anderson’s debut had taken so long.
In his biography of Thierry Henry, the player who epitomised the multiculturalism of the 1998 World Cup winning team - the so-called Black, Blanc, Beur (‘Black, White, Arab’) – Philippe Auclair also recounts the statistic L’Equipe unearthed in 1986: that 200 of the 600 player who had then worn the French jersey had been of ‘foreign’ origin.
The picture is more complicated than that, of course. Henry adored that 1998 side he played in, though he, like so many, was a product of the high rise, high density banlieues where the levels of deprivation remains pretty much as great as ever. As The Independent’s Kim Sengupta’s despatches have revealed this week, it is the social exclusion in such places, on both sides of the France/Belgium border, which have created the conditions for terror to flourish. French inclusion has had its limits.
It was Patrice Evra - proud Frenchman; born in Dakar, Senegal – who did most to imbue the team with a determination to do France proud both in word and deed. When they all formed a circle and ducked down into stretching exercises in a half empty Wembley at 7.15pm, he embarked on a five-minute exhortation. That, of itself, was a quite remarkable vignette, given Evra was on the ball in Stade de France last Friday when an explosion was heard.
The adrenalin of the moment had its limits though. France began with promise, though they faded in an environment which was as becalmed as any Wembley has known. Some laughter and high spirits mercifully punctured the melancholy after a while. Paper planes crafted out of the paper raised before kick-off to make a tricolor mosaic were dropped down by English fans onto a few unsuspecting stewards, who laughed.
It was also a mercy to see the everyday gradually restored. Morgan Schneiderlin complained bitterly about the strong tackle from Dele Alli which robbed him and, moments later, saw the 19-year-old’s beautiful full debut goal. When the dust has settled, Didier Deschamps will be no no less aggrieved by the defending which allowed Rooney his goal.
The football picture was not entirely bleak for France. Their own 19-year-old, Anthony Martial, was the one who looked least inhibited. Perhaps that was the free spirit of youth talking. But a litany of hurdles lie ahead. The Stade de France, with its ghosts, hosts a friendly with Russia in March. And beyond that is a tournament shrouded with anxiety. Last night was a gesture, no more and no less.
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