Football's show of solidarity and its healing strength

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Almost ten years ago, the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace wrote in the New York Times about the experience of watching Roger Federer – then in his pomp – play tennis at Wimbledon. Wallace described Federer in reverential terms, comparing him to the half a dozen other athletes and sportspeople – Ali, Jordan, Maradona – for whom time seemed to slow. These people were never hurried, they seemed that much quicker than their opponents, the ball seemed to hang in the air that moment longer. Federer was, for Wallace, a creature both flesh and not, a beautiful, balletic embodiment of all a human could be, one for whom the normal laws of physics did not apply.

We have a tendency to deify sporting figures, as the headline of Wallace’s New York Times piece – Roger Federer as Religious Experience – shows. We entrust them with our hopes and our dreams, and we leave behind the shackles of our day to day lives when we step into their churches; those stadiums and arenas in every town and every city, the places where people congregate to forget and be transported. Sport is aspirational, we look and see what we might be. We drink in the grace and balance of a human in full flight, at the pinnacle of what our species can biomechanically achieve. We witness them as they channel primeval instincts, pure reflex and learned twitch muscles, a thousand adrenalin-fuelled calculations a second, distance, speed, drag, defining their space in three dimensions. We describe them using the language of war, and these sporting gladiators are the closest most of us come to genuine conflict.

Perhaps this is why it is so disturbing when sport comes into contact with real violence – we’re used to taking it seriously, but in the back of our minds we know it’s a game and if we decide to, we can walk away.

The tragic events in Paris last Friday reminded us that we can’t always walk away; sometimes conflict and violence happen right in front of us.

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For those of us in Britain, it was startling to see our neighbours face down that horror on streets we’ve walked down, in a city just a brief plane flight or train ride away.

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For those of us who watch football, the harrowing, violating sound of the explosion outside the Stade de France felt all too proximate. To have sat hundreds of times in similar stadiums – those churches of sporting aspiration – is to be familiar with the feel of the plastic seats and the concrete under feet. It does not take much imagination to conjure a living, breathing image – the odd double or quadruple shadows cast by the white light of the floodlights, the deafening, dizzying vacuum of the hum of a crowd silenced.

Hatred and fear are the aim of the perpetrators of such atrocities, but as the French journalist Antoine Leiris so eloquently put it, we cannot give them that gift. Leiris lost his wife in the massacre at the Bataclan, murdered by gunmen he does not, nor desires, to know. But he and his son have no more time to waste, they will insult them with their happiness and their determination to keep living.

It was in that spirit that the French Football Federation decided Monday night’s friendly against England should go ahead. They did so seemingly without consulting the players, who had been at the centre of it, on the pitch against Germany at the Stade de France. Several felt it off the pitch as well – Lassana Diarra lost his cousin on Rue Bichat, Antoine Griezmann’s sister escaped from the Bataclan.

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The horror was still painfully present at Wembley, but, speaking to the press, French captain Hugo Lloris and coach Didier Deschamps hit all the right notes. Still in shock and only beginning the length process of mourning, they were defiant, talking of solidarity and representing their nation. Whether Lloris and his fellow players would have chosen to go ahead with the game is unclear, but they and their manager played admirably the role in which they cannot have ever expected to be cast.

The England team played their part admirably too. The FA rightly turned the focus on our visiting neighbours, playing passive host and letting the French authorities dictate the tone.

Wayne Rooney especially has been measured with his words. The England captain expressed his sympathy in personal terms, and took time to find the right words when asked about England’s role, and football’s role more generally. He was right when he said that the match going ahead was a symbol of solidarity and a stand against terrorism, but more important was his expression of his hope that Wembley could be a venue for the French players to make the French nation proud.

And they did. The sporting church still stood firm. People still came in their droves – ten thousand additional tickets were sold after it was confirmed the match was going ahead – they sang La Marseillaise and held aloft Tricolore banners. Then, when kick off came, all the hurt and the pain were put away for a while, just like always, and they watched and aspired, just like always.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Ben Sutherland 

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