The history of those who follow England’s national team is not especially glorious. Too often, patriotism has spilled over into violence, and the scourge of the height of hooliganism in the 1980s has not been forgotten. There has been boorishness, ignorant, xenophobic chanting, and on occasion, the booing of a rival’s national anthem.
How different Tuesday night was. Tens of thousands of English supporters spent the days leading up to their country’s friendly international against France at Wembley Stadium in their homes and schools and pubs and workplaces, practicing La Marseillaise, the iconic and beautiful French anthem, so that they could join in.
And so they did, with tones both guttural and sweet, both trained and raw, while bearing banners and flags with messages of hope and support for a neighbor suffering national tragedy.
Just a few days on from the terror attacks in Paris it was remarkable that the game went ahead at all, yet that was the decision made by by France’s soccer administrators and coaches and embraced by a group of players who understand their role in helping bring the country together.
It was an emotional night. For the past few days, Wembley’s famous arch was lit in the red, white and blue of the French flag. Match organizers broke with protocol, playing the home anthem of God Save The Queen first to give extra significance to the French version that followed.
Prince William was there, in a dual role as president of the Football Association and as a national figurehead, laying a wreath on the sideline along with the respective coaches, Roy Hodgson and Didier Deschamps.
Thousands of French fans turned out, waving their national flags and singing with pride throughout. English supporters sported T-shirts that paid tribute to Paris. The players stood shoulder to shoulder ahead of kickoff, first for a photo opportunity and a minute of silence.
It was a game with meaning far deeper than sports, yet a game still. England, perhaps unsurprisingly, had the clearer focus and was the better team on the night. Goals from teenager Dele Alli and captain Wayne Rooney gave England a 2-0 win, yet there were other moments that spoke louder. There were appearances from the substitutes by two men for whom the carnage was all too personal. Antoine Griezmann’s sister was among the fortunate to escape from the Bataclan theater, while the female cousin of midfielder Lassana Diarra was among the 129 who perished.
There was the generally high level of sportsmanship, the warm applause for both teams, the lack of gamesmanship that is so common in top level soccer.
Playing for a cause is a common theme in sports and so often it misses the point. It is not about the result. It is the participation that resonates most, the message to those who would wreak ill will, the continuation of life bearing some semblance to normalcy. Europe, sports and the fight against terror faces huge challenges, with no greater reminder needed than the cancellation of Germany’s match against the Netherlands due to a bomb threat.
That is a separate tale, albeit on a related theme. But what happened at Wembley was a step in the healing, every part of it, an overwhelming message of pride and defiance and togetherness.
And a victory, no matter what the scoreline read.