Football united

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Of the 129 people currently confirmed dead following the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th, three perished at the Stade De France, the national football stadium located on the northern outskirts of the city. That number would have been much higher if the suicide bomber assigned to that location had not been barred entry to the stadium by several brave security guards, whose courage cost them their lives.  

The fact a game between France and Germany was taking place in the stadium at the time, the game itself and outcome of the game is clearly of not even secondary importance. I’m a rabid football fan, and I can’t even tell you without a Google search what the result of the match was.

Football stadiums, much like any other sports venue, can lend themselves to moments of terror, which given their closed quarters and large crowds can quickly spiral out of control, worsening the situation many-fold. That would undoubtedly have been the case last Friday evening had the evil-minded individual succeeded in his mission.

How, in the face of such horrific circumstances, does one put football in to any sort of context moving forwards? Will we ever be truly safe again at any major sporting venue? What’s our alternative; avoid attending live games just in case?

The French Footballing Federation’s response to this question was swift and definitive. The French team was due to travel to London, a city itself on constant high-alert, a few days after days after the attacks to play a friendly match against England. Though there were reports that some French players were not keen on play a game so soon after an attack on their capital, and understandably so, their football governing body was unequivocal in its stance: the game would go on.

And so, on Tuesday evening, English and French players stood alternately, side-by-side, in a circle in the center of the field. A tricolor wreath of flowers lay on the center spot, the night sky above them illuminated by the tricolor arch that the English FA had lit in honor of those who had perished the Friday before. At the edge of the field, English and French footballing dignitaries stood alongside their team coaches and English FA President, Prince William, in a show of unified sorrow and resolute solidarity.

As is football tradition, when recognizing moments of such tragedy, the crowd delivered a minutes applause for the victims followed by a perfectly observed minute of silence. But then something happened in Wembley Stadium that has never happened before, perhaps never happened in any football stadium before: At the playing of the national anthems, the entire 71,000 person crowd, Englander and Frenchman, joined together to sing the French choral, La Marseillaise. The hairs are still standing up on the back of my neck. I will never forget my homeland's stadium bathed in blue, white and red, flags, banners and scarfs held aloft with every voice in unison in an outpouring of support, of love.

Celebrated Liverpool coach, Bill Shankly, always good value for a hyperbolic quote, once said, "Football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that." He was wrong, of course. I think one of his contemporaries, Carlo Ancelotti, was nearer the mark though in suggesting, "Football is the most important of the less important things in the world." We saw that on Tuesday night in London.

Football can serve an important purpose as a unifier, a healer, and provide a global stage upon which to show the rest of the world that though our hearts may be broken, our spirits are not.

Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for over 15 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer (football!), hiking and biking when the weathers good, and when the weathers rotten writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett, or @BackChatPodcast, a Switchbacks F.C. fan podcast on which he is a co-presenter.

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