There will be silence before kick-off at Wembley Stadium tomorrow night, but we might also expect a cascade of noise to pour down from the stands, as well – La Marseillaise, a song of anger directed at an enemy, will doubtlessly be heard around the world. This friendly match between England and France would, on any other occasion, been considered for what it is from our collective viewing gantry within the bubble that is Planet Football, a useful if somewhat meaningless friendly international between two teams looking for a workout ahead of next summer’s European Championships. All of that has changed now, of course. From the sound of explosions outside Le Stade de France on Friday evening on, this is now a match the significance of which we could not have guessed at this time last week.
The history of the relationship between these two nations is, of course, a complex and frequently fraught one and has been, under numerous different guises, for over a thousand years. At times, it feels as if England has tendency to view France through a prism of the differences between us rather than those which we have in common. Relatively recent history, however, has seen the English and the French as allies rather enemies, and the remembrance that will be marked tomorrow night will be a reflection upon this, a notion that frequently feels outdated in an increasingly atomised political age. For once, point scoring might be put to one side in order to remember the dead with solemnity, and then to send a message of defiance to a small number of fanatical recidivist ideologues who would seek to murder the majority of us and enslave the rest.
It may be overlooked – and it might even be understandable if it was, in its own way – but we should, in that moment, also pause to remember the dead of Beirut and beyond as well, tomorrow night. It is understandable that the spectre of death affects us more greatly when it visits upon a world closer to our homes, but the war that Islamic State wishes to induce is not merely a war against “The West.” It’s a war against all bar those who share their narrow and nihilistic worldview. Mourning those that have died against what we should surely consider to be a common enemy should not be considered a competition, and it may be appropriate to mark the deaths of all of those that have come to an untimely end at the hands of this poisonous organisation.
There will doubtlessly be some who are concerned at football as an entity getting involved in any form of memorial that goes beyond the game itself. The identification of Le Stade de France as a target for last Friday’s attacks, however, in itself says something about the game’s role in society in a broader sense. An international football match was selected as a target precisely because the game is a part of a broader culture that this organisation despises so much. Much is made of football as a “religion” and, however trite it may seem, there may be a case for arguing that our allegiances have come to replace and complement those to be found in churches in an increasingly secular society. Even if we reject this version of football’s place in the world, it almost feels as if the Football Association and, more importantly, the French Football Federation, whose confirmation that this match must be played was so definite, had little choice in their decision. What alternative did they have? Only, it feels, one that would tell a story that none of us wish to tell.
It is to be hoped that whatever is decided upon for this match comes from people who understand that exaggerated displays of mawkishness are unnecessary and distracting. Similarly, the militarism that has creeped into remembrance day commemorations in recent years has no place at Wembley Stadium tomorrow night. It’s divisive, and would be inappropriate at a time during which we, whoever “we” in this context may be, should be united. The dead should be remembered. A message of defiance should be sent to those celebrating last Friday’s slaughter. And that is all that is necessary. With the whistle that blows to mark the start of the match, football will continue. Just as it should do. Just as we should all continue in our normal daily lives. Because if we deviate from that, we’re giving the despicable a victory that they truly do not deserve.
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