Friday afternoon, I was doing what I usually do when there’s interesting soccer going on in the world. Since I didn’t have any particular rooting interest in any of the matches taking place, I put the most meaningful one (Bosnia and Herzegovina hosting Ireland in a European Championship playoff) on my tv, and picked the most interesting of the numerous friendlies to stream on my tablet. All for background noise, more than anything. I decided to stream France-Germany rather than Belgium-Italy or Spain-England. Little did I know, that friendly exhibition between two of the top teams in Europe would morph into a world-changing event.
There’s no need to recount all the details of Friday, November 13th, 2015 in Paris. But I heard the bomb. I didn’t think anything of it. I heard the boom, glanced at my tablet, the crowd had a relatively muted reaction, and the match continued. Over the next hours, the details of that night’s horror would emerge, but the match continued. I don’t know what would’ve happened if tens of thousands of spectators had flooded the streets of Paris in panic, let alone what would’ve happened had the first suicide bomber successfully entered the Stade de France before detonating himself. There was enough loss of innocent life that night; I don’t need to think about how much worse it could’ve been. The soccer continued, and, undoubtedly, that saved lives.
Soccer never stops. That might be the most attractive thing about following the sport. The games themselves don’t have television timeouts. There’s only a fifteen minute break between halves. That’s it. The schedule never stops. Whether it is club competitions or international duty, meaningful soccer happens during every month of the calendar. In Friday’s aftermath, there was talk of canceling Tuesday’s friendly between England and France at Wembley Stadium in London. After some discussion, the match was played. The president of the French football federation said that cancelling the match would have been tantamount to cowing to terrorism. Instead of bending to the fear terrorists wish to create, the participants in the match, and the supporters in the stadium and around the world, carried on. Soccer wouldn’t stop. Ninety thousand (mostly) English fans sang the French national anthem with even greater fervor than their own. Before kickoff, all twenty-two players stood around the center circle to observe a moment of silence, united. It was a moving reminder of the significant power of fandom. Too often, we use war metaphors while describing the ultimately meaningless practice of grown men playing kids’ games, but events like last Friday’s emphasize that sports, at their best, are a welcome diversion from grim reality, and a reminder that we, as fans, are always part of a special community of like-minded individuals.
We will see displays of grief, resolve, and defiance in the face of unthinkable evil in the weeks and months ahead, because soccer doesn’t stop. Ligue 1, the top tier in France, will play their matches, as scheduled, this weekend. Saturday, Real Madrid will host Barcelona in the first El Clasico of the 2015-2016 campaign, renewing the greatest rivalry in all of sports. The European Championships will be held in France next summer, as scheduled. Anything less is capitulation.
I am looking forward to one match in particular, though it will not take place for another couple of weeks. Paris Saint Germain (by FAR Paris’s biggest and best football club) host Troyes in Ligue 1 play on Saturday, November 28th. PSG are away to Lorient this weekend, and play at Swedish side Malmo in Champions League on the 25th, but their return to the Parc des Princes will be a sight to behold. I’m a fan of PSG. In my opinion, they are currently the fourth best team in the world, behind Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. They’re one of several new-money teams looking to buy their way to European success, and they’re rapidly approaching the quality of the established powers of the continent. I like their outsider status (yes, they’re one of the wealthiest clubs on earth, and they have a higher payroll than any sports team on the planet, but they’re not “establishment”), and I enjoy their style of play. Plus, they have Zlatan. How can you not like Zlatan?
As the President said in the hours after the attacks, and has been repeated many times since, this was not just an attack on Paris, but an attack on all of humanity. Still, the day-to-day lives of Parisians were uniquely affected, which is why I can’t wait for fifty thousand of them to gather at a soccer stadium fewer than ten miles from the site of their living nightmare. When they do, they will grieve, they will remember, and they will sing. One of the clubs most important anthems, Oh Ville Lumiere, will be especially poignant. Loosely translated (it’s been a while since high school French class), the song goes, “Oh city of light, you feel the heat of our hearts. You see our passion, when we walk beside you, in this quest, to pursue the enemy, until our colors shine again.” Obviously, it sounds better when sung in French, but the message is inspiring, and relevant, in any language. I’ll be singing along. Soccer, and sport, will go on. We need it to.