Tonight we had a match that everyone watched, yet no-one really cared about how it finished, and that is not just because it was a warm-up encounter. The game at Wembley Stadium on November 17 2015, four days after a harrowing Friday the 13th in which 129 innocent people lost their lives in Paris, was a friendly by name and by nature and a non-competitive kick-a-bout that will go down in history.
The sporting world, and most probably a large section of people who never watch 22-men kick a ball around regularly, tuned in to see normally bitter rivals England and France join together and sing ‘La Marseillaise’, the national anthem of France, in unison to show that terror, no matter how hard it tries, will never win – and that sport will not be another unfortunate casualty.
While the French carried on their immense bravery from Friday to agree to play the game in the first place is an act that is incredibly commendable to say the least, it was also a sign of typical British spirit to say ‘no’ in the face of adversity while Germany’s match with their old enemy the Netherlands and world number one ranked Belgium’s contest with Spain were sadly affected by fear and terror threats.
Pre-match tributes were made by all involved – the players walked out behind a French flag bearing the country’s motto of “commitment, freedom, equality and brotherhood”, more flags were decorated with “we stand together” written in English and wreaths were carried and laid out by Prince William as well as the two managers – Roy Hodgson and World Cup winner Didier Deschamps before the anthems and the minute silence which was observed impeccably.
Ex-AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti once said that “Football is the most important of the non-important things in life” – and that is never more true than on nights such as this one, where, if only for a moment, people, whether in the stadium or not, were allowed to switch off their minds from fear, or worry, or anxiety, or grief, to lose themselves in ‘the beautiful game’ – even if the action did not end with points or prizes for either side whether they were wearing white or blue.
The result although just a formality, ended 2-0 to England with Dele Alli netting a stunner under the arch that displayed the Tri Color of the French flag while a security helicopter flew up above and was therefore, chillingly, the only thing that could be heard in the vicinity during the minute silence before kick-off. Out-of-form captain Wayne Rooney added a second for the Three Lions after half-time.
Alli broke the deadlock with his first England goal on only his fourth cap for Hodgson’s side with a long-range effort six minutes before the break that raised spirits for the home side, as the latest man on the ‘new England hope’ conveyor belt continues his moment in the spotlight.
He has been in remarkable form for his club in recent weeks, both in the Premier League and the Europa League, and now the 19-year-old is performing on the world stage too as he attempts to get a place on the flight for Euro 2016 next summer, which coincidentally, and now controversially, will be held in France – with the final to be played in Paris at the Stade de France, the stadium just minutes away from the recent atrocities. Bombs could be heard during the friendly that was played on that dreaded day – as Deschamps’ men met, and beat world champions Germany.
Midfielder Alli was also instrumental in doubling England’s advantage three minutes into the second half too when he won the ball off Paul Pogba to lay off Raheem Sterling who crossed to the far post for England record scorer Rooney’s 51st international goal.
Pogba was a Serie A winner and Champions League finalist member last season with Italian giants Juventus while Alli was plying his trade and winning promotion in League One with Milton Keynes Dons, but last night you would not have been able to tell the difference between the man who was chased by the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona over the summer and the one that joined Tottenham Hotspur for £5 million the previous January.
Les Blues did threaten in glimpses, managing three shots on target to Joe Hart and then Jack Butland’s goal, but, understandably, minds did seem elsewhere.
Two minds that were stronger than anyone else’s though were those of Lassana Diarra and Antoine Griezmann who were both personal victims of the Paris massacre.
Diarra, who once played for English clubs Chelsea, Arsenal, and Portsmouth as well as Real Madrid and is currently at Marseille, tragically lost his cousin Asta Diakite but showed his strength and did his loved one proud by entering the fold after 57 minutes and performed admirably.
Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann has a similar, but more fortunate story. His sister was one of the 1,500 people that attended the Eagles of Death Metal rock concert at the Bataclan theatre and thankfully lived to tell the tale where 87 could not, and again, Griezmann found terrific inner spirit to play his part in his country’s 2-0 loss with a 23-minute role off the bench.
Anthony Martial had their best chance when he combined well with Pogba, but his tame effort was straight at Butland who is arguably the Premier League’s goalkeeper of the season so far, but no player for the away side could put a smile on their travelling supporters’ faces.
France captain Hugo Lloris thanked the English fans for their support as the mutual respect continued after the final whistle and the Spurs keeper conceded the encounter was “not easy” for him and his team mates.
He continued that he thought the match-up was “about solidarity, about character and life is still carrying on, so (they) need to carry on” – and carry on they did, exquisitely.