LONDON – Uniting in a symbol of defiance and respect, fans and players of the French and English soccer teams delivered a moving display of solidarity at Wembley Stadium at a friendly staged four days after the deadly attacks in Paris.
A touching pre-game ceremony saw England and France supporters sing the French national anthem as one, before the squads came together around the centre circle to observe impeccably a minute’s silence in honour of the 129 people killed.
Social media was awash with praise for the dignified way a sensitive occasion was handled. Wembley’s iconic arch was lit up in the blue, white, and red of the French flag, while the French motto “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” was projected on the front of the national stadium.
“We have been welcomed here like it’s our own home,” Sebastien Correia, a train driver from Calais who was attending the game with nine friends, told The Associated Press before kickoff. “That’s very important for us, for Europe, and for the world, for all the people who are fighting against dictatorships and terrorism. We need solidarity on a European and a world level.”
Prince William, who helped lay floral tributes beside the field, and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among the near-80,000 spectators at Wembley, where there was an increased police presence and enhanced security measures that included compulsory bag searches.
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With a police helicopter whirring overhead and armed officers on patrol, England and France soccer fans had mingled outside Wembley in a calm atmosphere on a wet and windy evening in London. There was no sense of panic among supporters, who appeared intent on sending a defiant message of unity after the bombings in the French capital.
“Tonight is more about solidarity than football,” said England fan Robert Williams, who was wearing a beret and holding a French flag. “It is about remembering the people that have lost their lives in such tragic circumstances.”
France’s players were caught up in the attacks that ripped through Paris in several locations on Friday. Suicide bombers attacked the Stade de France, where France was playing Germany in a friendly. The teams spent the night in the stadium as carnage struck elsewhere.
France midfielder Lassana Diarra’s cousin was killed and France forward Antoine Griezmann’s sister escaped from the Bataclan concert hall where 89 people died. Diarra and Griezmann were among the 23-man squad that came to London, and both came on as second-half substitutes.
Diarra lowered his head during the minute’s silence. Many France players looked emotional.
Worldwide focus was not on the game or the result between two of the major powers in European soccer, but on what the occasion has come to represent.
“Sport comes second tonight,” Correia said.
Fans from both countries shared warm embraces outside the stadium. Hours later — in another poignant and powerful moment in the pre-game ceremony — players from both teams stood side by side with their arms linked in front of photographers.
Mathieu De Bruyne, an engineer from Dunkerque, said he had brief doubts about coming to London for the game.
“Maybe for two minutes, I thought to myself, ‘Should I go, should I not go?’ But I had to go. Nothing has changed,” he said. “You have to live like you live normally, go to the game, drink beer in the bar.
“Don’t show you are afraid.”