At Wembley Stadium, on Tuesday, 71,000 fans gathered to watch a France-England friendly and pay homage to the victims of last week’s attacks in Paris. The audience put on a brave face, chanting and jumping and waving their flags, but just four days on from an act of terror that claimed 130 lives, there was little joy to be had.

Before kick-off, the Marseillaise resounded throughout the stadium. The England fans joined in clumsily but emphatically, aided by two screens displaying the words; the French sang loud and clear. There followed a minute of silence.

The England fans then quickly recovered their own, distinct bite. A man chanted: “We’re going to France, we’re going to France, fuck Isis, we’re going to France”. Another cried out “Come on, Les Bleus!” intermittently in a thick English accent that made the French supporters smile.

Soon the English chants Rule Britannia and Engerland overwhelmed the stadium, as on any other day at Wembley. But the French crowd, amassed in one corner, kept its spirits up through the evening, even as the French team conceded two goals and seemed unable to bring their game back to life. Some fans discussed their team’s technique, but none of that seemed to really matter.

The French supporters started waves that rippled through the whole stadium.

Below the cheers, strangers shook hands and spoke about what had happened in Paris. One French supporter holidaying in London simply said how sad she was, then looked away.

No one present seemed quite able to enjoy the game, and yet the occasion felt momentous. For a football match was an uncannily apt symbol of unity and defiance after a terrorist attack that had, in part, targeted the game itself.

The January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher exposed and accentuated the frailties and divisions of French society: because the targets were controversial satirists; because it was a Jewish supermarket, in a context of heightened antisemitism within parts of the population.

The French spent months fighting over who was Charlie, who was not. But on 13 November, the terrorists hit the lowest common denominator of contemporary France: popular culture. And the whole country was this time able to gather around shared feelings of hurt. At least in the immediate aftermath.

The targets were things as simple as going out, having a drink, listening to music and, notably, watching football. Beyond the Bataclan concert hall and the bars and restaurants of central Paris, which were the deadliest locations, the Stade de France was also a target.

Despite the blows to the reputation of France’s national football team in recent years, football still is the country’s most beloved sport, and especially so to its youth. The passions towards the sport coalesce around the Stade de France.

As France’s most important sporting venue, that stadium belongs to the whole country. But the jeunes des cités, and especially those of Saint-Denis, feel an especially strong connection with it. They might never go to central Paris for a drink or to attend a concert – most won't have known the Carillon or the Comptoir Voltaire, where some of the attacks took place – but they'll go to the Stade de France, they'll have seen its birth in '98 during the World Cup which France hosted and won, they'll have been there on the day of the attacks, or known people who were there. They watch football, they play football, they talk football. Striking that stadium is striking at what they love most.

And so many of the young men and women who may not have felt like Charlie in January now feel affected. They feel the grief of Lassana Diarra, the French footballer who lost a cousin in the Bataclan, and yet still played at Wembley on Tuesday. They feel the fear of those present at the Stade de France on 13 November, who heard the bombs go off outside the stadium, then gathered onto the pitch, too scared to venture outside. So too does the rest of the country.

Did the Wembley game feel cathartic? To many it won’t have done. So soon after the attacks, many will have felt a certain unease in going out into a large crowd, in singing and shouting slogans, as though these were festive times, which they could hardly be.

But the game was useful. Because football was targeted, and it needed to show its defiance in the face of horror. Because grief in such moments is not just private but also communal. And because through the chants at Wembley Stadium, England showed its support to France, at a time when it needed it most.

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