As they sang La Marseillaise, the camera settled on a blonde twenty-something in the stands. She smiled as she sang. She glanced at the big screen across the stadium, to remind herself of the lyrics. Entendez-vous dans les campagnes / Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Wembley Stadium sang for France on Tuesday night. It waved flags for her, kept silence for her, shouted <<Allez, les Bleus!>> to encourage her against the hometown team, England, in a friendly. It stood to cheer for her players, who were plainly still traumatized by the events of last week but who trudged onto the pitch anyway.
How rare, these moments. When we embrace each other, when we affirm one another’s pain. When we can stop howling about our intractable differences enough to say, we may not agree on much, but we want an end to this carnage. We may disagree on the means and even the ends — even who “we” are — but we all want better than this, the suffering that has been visited upon Beirut, upon Paris, upon Yola, Nigeria.
How rare, how brief, and how quickly forgotten — if experience is my guide — are these moments. And thus how precious.
In dark days, football is some comfort. Soccer, more than most sports, is spartan in its essence. Eleven players a side, a ball to chase around a green acre-and-a-half, a rulebook that could fit on a Post-It, go. It’s this elemental magic that enchants kids the world over: suburban schoolgirls, hard-edged favela youth, barefoot village boys. It’s this simplicity that we turned to, we who watched the game at Wembley, for a moment’s peace.
But as I watched on Tuesday, I was also reminded that football is exactly what the world isn’t: Manichean. One side versus another, with opposite loyalties plain as the colors they wear. With clear rules of engagement and a clear definition of success. With bright white lines, at 90-degree angles, and a 90-minute clock, to define it.
The leaden eyes of Lassana Diarra showed how it was possible to stand on the pitch while existing off of it. The French midfielder has spent the last five years clawing his way back onto the national squad. Along the way, Diarra — a Parisian of Malian descent, and an observant Muslim — was falsely accused of joining ISIS. He was playing at the Stade de France last week when the attacks came to Paris, claiming his cousin’s life.
“In this climate of terror, it’s important for us all, who are representatives of our country and her diversity, to speak out and to stay united against a horror that has neither color nor religion,” he said.
The pitch glowed with this diversity. The action pinballed between players of Jamaican, Angolan, British, Tunisian, Guinean, Gallic, and Nigerian descent — for a partial list — all playing, somehow, under English and French emblems.
Yet even as they treated us to a show of world-class skill, they embodied the fear and concern that has crept across Europe like frostbite, the acrimonious debates that lie ahead. How many Syrian refugees can the West accept, after this? How do you tell a terrorist from a terrified, desperate survivor? Can you? Why are the West’s Muslim communities so often isolated from the broader public, especially in Europe? Is multiculturalism the problem, or the solution?
On the offensive front: Is ISIS like the hydra of comic books, or can it be defeated? If so, what is the cost? Are our societies willing to own up to that cost and bear it? Does war bring peace, or does it beget war? Should the freedom of a few be traded for the security of many?
These painful, divisive questions couldn’t touch the pitch at Wembley yesterday. They lingered above and beside it, like a mist. They dissipated with the cheers that accompanied every France substitution. They stood still as the players embraced at the center circle for a moment of remembrance.
There’s a reason we’ll remember this game as a show of solidarity. Sport is one of the last social institutions that encourages us to strip the labels and identities that normally define us. If we’re being honest, it replaces these labels with new ones: Patriots fan, Barça fan, Ole Miss fan, etc. But by temporarily scrapping the divisions that normally seem so inherent — class, race, nationality, faith, political party — sports also raise the question of how real these divisions were to begin with.
That is what charged the air at Wembley. That is what made possible our Marseillaise moment, when we stood, and sang, and honored the dead, and hoped for better.
Yet sports can’t redeem society, any more than pink ribbons can cure breast cancer. There are weighty, terrifying questions to answer. They are the ones that have always divided us, and they can’t be resolved on the pitch, or even with the dualistic logic of the game. Football may comfort us, but it cannot guide us.
Cover photo from nytimes.com | Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency.