Why I'll heed the words of my Iraqi father and take my young son to the France v England match

My father loved football - even though he was spat on and called an 'animal' during matches when he moved to England. He kept his pride and dignity by never letting hate control him - and now I intend to do the same

Layth Yousif
Monday 16 November 2015 11:30 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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On Friday I told friends that I had allowed my nine-year-old son, for a treat, to stay up for that evening's Spain v England friendly match in Alicante.

Cue the good-natured quips that watching the Three Lions play football is hardly a joyful delight, and, as a budding student of the game we all love - which many including myself obsess about - at least he'd learn something from studying the Spanish.

My son - who has fallen for the beautiful game as suddenly and passionately as I once did - gloried in the elegant spontaneity of Arsenal's Santi Carzorla guiding the ball into the England net to make it 2-0 to the home team.

I decided to turn my phone back on in order to send a tweet extolling the virtues of the Gunners impish two-footed star. But as I did, my timeline started to fill with the awful news of a terrorist attack at the Stade de France.

I immediately turned over to the multitude of news channels so readily available and watched, distraught but transfixed as the horror unfolded. 'Why do the terrorists hate football?' my uncomprehending son asked.

I struggled to answer before inarticulately mumbling a truism about them hating our way of life. Not long after, as the incomprehensible murder at Bataclan unfurled in all its unrelenting barbarity I carried him to bed, half-sleeping, half-determined to stay awake to watch grown-up matters with his dad.

I lay him down, tousled his hair, kissed him on his forehead and then gave an involuntary shudder. It was prompted by the fact my dear son along with my two angelic daughters were safe in their beds, while fewer than 300 miles away, in a city I know so well - not least from two trips to the Stade de France including the 2006 Champions League final and a France v England friendly six years before - innocent young people, sons and daughters of loving parents, were being butchered with chilling exactitude in the name of religion.

I am the son of an Iraqi immigrant father and an Irish mother. They settled in London in the '70s, when racism and prejudice flourished. With his brown skin and less-than-perfect English, my father was a target for right-wing bully boys and worse.

But he loved football, and in his quest to find a team visited various football grounds in London - where he was verbally abused for the colour of his skin. Indeed on one occasion, at an England game at Wembley he was physically attacked, as well as being spat at, and called, apparently without irony, by the same person who spat at him, 'an animal'.

Arsenal Football Club and their evocative home ground of Highbury was the only place where he failed to receive such treatment. He may have simply been lucky not to have encountered racism there - but he never forgot that simple humanity could exist in football grounds. And when my mum was pregnant with me I became an Arsenal and football fan before I was born.

My father kept his pride and dignity by never reacting to such provocation - as well as appalling treatment in a series of menial jobs. We lived in various council estates in London as he instilled in me a fierce work ethic. He also imparted in me a pride in being able to call myself a Londoner, in being able to call myself English, and British - for he knew how much he owed this country who took him on as an immigrant with the clothes on his back and a fiver in his pocket.

He still has a lifelong love and respect for this country. For its freedoms, for its tolerance, for its generally understated acceptance of diverse opinions, faiths and races.

So, when I called him the day after the Paris attacks he said the same thing to me as he did after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the 7/7 explosions, and 9/11. He told me: 'We cannot let these people beat us. Not only are they trying to attack our way of life, they are distorting a religion for their own bloodthirsty means. The way to beat them is to carry on.'

On 9/11 that meant going travelling shortly after the event with the future mother of my three children - including pointedly making New York our first stop on a worldwide odyssey - that also saw us narrowly avoid being in The Sari Club, Kuta Beach, Bali, when Indonesian terrorists attacked.

On July 7, 2005, which was my birthday, it meant going to the pub with my partner and friends to show that life could and should carry on as normal - once I'd walked back from the City where I worked at the time to Finsbury Park.

After Charlie Hebdo, it meant visiting my French father-in-law in his shell-shocked country, to show we stood with them.

And tomorrow? Well, Friday night's Spain v England game may have been a 'treat' for my son - but as someone who has followed the England football team away for nearly 20 years, and been to five tournaments across the globe from Japan to Germany and countless qualifiers from Azerbaijan to Poland, Israel to Greece - the biggest treat of them all was tickets for England v France at Wembley.

As a parent you want to ensure you do everything on your power to keep your kids safe. And believe me, I wrestled with the idea of taking my son - my lovely, bright, innocent, energetic son - to a place which could be a focal point for a terrorist attack.

But in the end, I listened to the words of my father, and a myriad of others who say that changing anything in the way we live our lives through fear of these murderous barbarians is handing them victory.

So, my son, my nephew and I will be at Wembley on Tuesday to show our support with Parisians, to show our solidarity with our French neighbours - and to show that our wonderful, fun-loving, sport-loving, freedom-loving, frustrating, maddening, imperfect, unequal society - certainly when placed alongside the women-hating, democracy-hating, warmongering, child-killing one IS is trying to spread - is the only one worth living in.

Former Arsenal midfielder Lassana Diarra, who played 80 minutes at the Stade de France told a shocked world his cousin Asta Diakite was killed at Bataclan – along with countless other young people cut down in the prime of their lives. He said, “She was like a big sister to me. In this climate of terror, it is important for all of us who are representatives of our country and its diversity to speak and remain united against a horror that has no colour, no religion."

And as they release more details of those who died, enjoying their pleasures – our pleasures - of Friday night drinks with friends, of enjoying a concert, or a football match, a convivial meal with good company, the sheer indiscriminate nature of such appalling, implausible terror affects us all.

So, yes, while you can argue watching the England football team is not much of a treat, it is an activity central to many hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.

And to avoid attending Wembley would not only be cowardly but would give terrorists confirmation that they are disrupting our way of life - a way of life that millions died defending from another type of barbarity.

Which is why, when the national anthems are to be played before kick off, my son and nephew and I will be doing our best to sing La Marseillaise.

To show solidarity with France. To show solidarity with Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie. To show our thoughts are with all the victims' families, including Lassana Diarra.

To show that we will not be beaten.

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