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Wembley to welcome France for England friendly in spirit of defiance

So, the show goes on then. As news of the atrocities in Paris on Friday night filtered through to Alicante during the second half of England’s friendly against Spain – a tumorous, spreading sense of horror with each fresh round of details – football became an instant irrelevance. At the time it seemed certain that Tuesday’s game against France, at Wembley, would be cancelled. In part because of the obvious pressing security concerns, but above all because of the sheer rawness of the occasion, the sense of unnecessary intrusion on a period of pain and grief.

The French Football Federation has taken another, bolder view. The match will go ahead. France will be welcomed at Wembley in a spirit of fraternity and defiance. International football will be presented with the chance to provide a show of sporting solidarity in the face of mass murder, nihilism and psychopathic self‑immolation.

This is a lot to ask of a game of football. Silence might have felt like an easier response. There is a time to play and a time to grieve. But there are other emotions in play here beyond simply grief and fear. Naturally, the atmosphere before and during the match will be one of defiance and, indeed, anger at what François Hollande, the French president, described as “an act of war” planned by parties outside France.

It is already clear their most profound acts of defiance will come through other channels, chiefly the deployment of further armed forces to the territories occupied by those who have claimed responsibility. For now, Wembley will host what promises to be an extraordinarily nuanced occasion. Part wake, part mass-security operation, part Viking funeral for those murdered going about similar nightly acts of leisure in Paris. For all its rather overblown sense of self-importance, elite football remains a self-contained world. Perhaps with the FFF’s insistence on business as usual, on persisting rather than shrinking back, it might offer a little comfort.

In Alicante, there was an added sense of poignancy to the standard post-match routine. As England’s players filed past, oblivious to anything other than a gruelling 90 minutes, Harry Kane, Joe Hart and Gary Cahill stopped to chat with the waiting journalists. Clearly none of the players knew or had any idea of the scale of what had just taken place in Paris, just as no one on the other side of the aluminium barrier had yet had the chance to absorb anything but the earliest chilling details.

There was some routine chat about how France might play, what it would be like facing Hugo Lloris. Nobody could quite bring themselves to break the spell of innocence, to raise what within minutes would become clear – that a friendly at the fag end of the last international break of the year had metamorphosed into something far removed from the self-contained nexus of professional sport, an exhibition match in the truest sense.

As the players disappeared into the evening air, 740 miles due north their club-mates from the German national team were hunkering down for the night under full military lockdown inside the Stade de France, an extraordinary shattering of the veil between the everyday obfuscations of professional sport and the world outside.

Two of the suicide bombers targeting France’s friendly with Germany had failed in their primary aim, detonating only themselves. But the effect of such acts is insidious by design. In southern Spain, England’s fans had watched on in a bellicose state of sun-baked calm. The next day it seemed striking how little real security there was at the Estadio José Rico Pérez beyond the usual police presence.

There will no doubt be obligatory structural changes to the way all such events are staged and policed, the cordon pulled a little tighter. This despite there is no real defence against those set on self-destruction. The effect, as intended, is simply to make us all feel that bit more vulnerable and alienated.

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England, Germany and Spain will be among those in France for the Euro 2016 Championship seven months from now. It seems safe to say at this distance the tournament will not be cancelled or shifted. Sporting events have been moved or scrubbed in response to war or terrorist action in the past, but there are no obvious points of precedent for doing so here. The Ryder Cup, scheduled to take place a month after the attacks of 11 September 2001, was postponed for a year. The 2009 version of cricket’s Indian Premier League was moved to South Africabecause of the threat of domestic terrorism in the wake of the murderous attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore. Beyond that, only world war has stopped completely football’s own branch of staged international relations, the years 1914-1918 and 1939‑1945 blocked out as the darkest parts of the 20th century intervened.

Quite what the tone and texture of next summer’s tournament will be is open to question. Just as western Europe’s cities and airports will be altered by events in Paris, so France 2016 will be a different event. The notion of the modern football tournament as a hedonistic, nuance-free, commercial carnival can be packed away for a start. Suicide bombs at the Stade de France marks a departure for sport as a whole. Never such innocence again, as Philip Larkin wrote in his first world war remembrance ode MCMXIV.

Fan zones, tourist hotels, train stations, shopping districts, city centres after dark. All of these look horrendously open and vulnerable. There will be hugely heightened security, with increased cooperation with neighbouring nations. Certainly the British police and military will be involved at an intelligence level, perhaps even with the extraordinary event of British boots in action on French soil.

Yet, as the FFF have hinted – whether out of simple defiance or a less coherent cocktail of emotions – sport does have some role to play. Albeit the same role every form of peaceable human activity takes on in response. Football, in particular, likes nothing better than trumpeting its own importance, from the overblown drama of triumph and defeat to the cynical appropriation of the language of diplomacy by the sport’s administrative bodies. Handshakes of peace, football across the barricades, the sickly and oleaginous posturings of the Fifa “Football Family”. All of this looks ever more ludicrous.

Against that, sport in its pure form has always been a matter of simple collectivism, from the basic fact of bringing together human beings in the same physical space, to the flicker of benign cross-border association, the sense of a step taken towards rather than apart.

No doubt some who might have travelled to France for those three weeks next summer will be dissuaded from doing so. This is understandable. Judgments must be made on personal safety and on the relative appeal of watching sport take place shadowed by fear. At the same time, those who do travel will, intentionally or not, make their own statement of intent.

Carlo Ancelotti’s line that football is the “most important of the least important things in life” has always had something cheering about it. The show remains a show. The best it can do is carry on regardless in the shadow of terror and stage an event, on Tuesday night and next summer, that represents, in its own small way, the opposite of division.


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