Sorrow gives way to joy
Football success plays part of French post-terror regeneration
BY BLOWING themselves up at France’s national stadium, suicide bombers created a link, indelibly marked in blood, between football and extremist terror – things that, in normal circumstances, are worlds apart.
Since that night in November, it has been impossible to think of one without the other at the vast arena where France’s national team was playing Germany and where, tomorrow night, it will play Portugal in the European Championship final.
That unwanted bond now also gives football, the French team and the Stade de France important roles in the long healing process France is still only part of the way through.
Regardless of whether Les Bleus win or lose against Cristiano Ronaldo’s team, hosting and celebrating the championship game will be one more step back toward the carefree life France is famous for, even if the reality was never as picture-postcard perfect.
The scale of the horror on November 13, the 130 dead and hundreds injured, rendered frivolities like football completely irrelevant. It is no exaggeration to say it seemed France might never be happy again. The emotions were of the rawest kind: fear, fury, confusion, and survivors’ guilt.
On the airwaves, first aiders spoke of battlefield wounds. The president spoke of war and declared a state of emergency.
Soldiers, heavily armed and in camouflage gear that in any other context would have been comical because they stick out like sore thumbs against the limestone backdrop of urban Paris, patrolled the streets, a sight both reassuring and worrying because it suggested France had been permanently changed, which it was.
Soldiers still patrol. It’s frightening how quickly one gets used to having them around.
For the second time in the year, kids came back from school with notes to inform their parents they’d be observing a moment of silence, as they did after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January.
As flowers, candles and cards stacked up outside the Bataclan concert hall where casualties were most concentrated, people also went in ones, twos and small groups to the 80 000-seat stadium in Paris’ northern outskirts which, before three bombers targeted it, was associated most strongly with happy memories of France’s greatest sporting triumph, when Zinedine Zidane scored twice to down mighty Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.
The visitors wanted answers but got only more questions because there is no explaining the unexplainable. Some took photos of the flecks of bombers’ flesh on walls and tarmac before municipal cleaners power-hosed them down the sewers. The souvenir snappers’ motivations weren’t necessarily voyeuristic or macabre. They were merely mapping the new fault lines the attacks opened in France’s hist- ory and future.
Football, of course, cannot wash away France’s trauma nor does it pretend to. But it is true to say because it is a powerful positive collective experience, winning at football can have unique restorative powers for a society that has just shared a powerful collective but negative experience.
Hosting the 24- nation Euro champs and Les Bleus’ advance through six games to the trophy match has put distance between then and now. Winning, especially a 2-0 semifinal victory against world champions Germany, restored a sensation of power and national pride for a country that in November seemed vulnerable and weak, one which despite its nuclear arsenal and permanent seat in the UN Security Council could be hurt so grievously by shadowy enemies both within and based far away in Islamic State-controlled territory.
Perhaps best of all, and because football is a sport that so celebrates and encourages these things, the tournament and the team’s success has opened the gates for mass French silliness; allowed them to
Fans celebrate the French victory over Germany in the semifinal of the Euro champs.