A “friendly” seems like an out of place name for an event just days after the horrific terror attacks in Paris. And yet that is what the French and English national soccer teams engaged in on Tuesday. “Friendly” is the term international soccer uses for an exhibition match, one that is not for the record but for the fans and players to enjoy.
The match inspired my friend Jonathan to ask whether a soccer game was necessary, whether it was trying to force things back to normal so quickly after a country was turned inside out. He posed a good question. Isn’t sports insignificant compared to such grief and outrage? Is it really necessary, or even wise, to host an exhibition? It seems somewhat pointless, possibly even tasteless.
But sports aren’t pointless in times like these. They don’t resolve any issues or bring any justice, but they can offer a sort of solace and an element of healing.
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Think back to mid-September 2001. Remember those New York Yankees and Mets games in the days following the attacks of 9/11? Those weren’t just men playing ball; they were symbols of hope and opportunities for patriotism. Tuesday’s “friendly” was much the same.
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In a small but strikingly visible way it was an act of public courage, a statement of defiance against the terror those attackers sought to bring about. When you consider that several of the attackers sought to detonate themselves as suicide bombers at France’s previous match against Germany on Friday, it makes Tuesday’s match stand in even starker reality against the darkness of fear.
Soccer is normal. Soccer is joyful. Soccer is what people do with their lives in France, and to do it is to declare that life will go on. It does not ignore pain or sorrow nor is it escapism. But for 90 minutes it is bright.
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It is easy to downplay sports and see only the risks involved at such a time, but in moments of crisis they can often be just the thing. These games unify and lift and bolster and occupy. And they create a lasting and stark impression emblazoned on people’s minds, and that is no small thing even if the game itself was.