France beat Germany 2-0 in a friendly last November, but the result is the last thing anybody remembers from that game. Two bombs were detonated outside the Stade de France that night, killing the bombers and a steward, as part of a series of coordinated attacks across Paris that left 130 dead. Memories of that night, inevitably, have dominated the build up to Thursday’s Euro 2016 semifinal between the sides in Marseille.
The boom of the explosions was clearly audible to players and fans and, despite an awareness something was badly wrong, it was decided to carry on with the game rather than risking a rush of fans into streets where police feared further terrorists may have been lying in wait. Although French president Francois Hollande was evacuated, both sets of players stayed in the stadium overnight, sleeping on mattresses.
“The players were very afraid,” said Germany’s general manager, Oliver Bierhoff. “We didn’t want to take any risks and we didn’t know either whether all routes would have been secure, so we stayed.” France’s players were praised by the acting president of the German football federation, Reinhard Rauball, for “an outstanding act of camaraderie” in remaining with their opponents.
As many as 13 players who started that game are likely to start on Thursday, but for all of them the message seems to be to try to ignore any significance the game may have beyond the immediate context of this tournament.
“We don’t think about that much,” said France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who was one of those who played on that fateful November night. “It is true it is not possible to forget about that, but we are fully concentrated on the Euros and our performance. As we said from the beginning we needed to put that behind us and look forward. Players, journalists, fans–all together we need to enjoy this great competition and I hope it will be big game for everyone.”
Others may find it rather harder to forget. France forward Antoine Griezmann played that night while his sister, Maud, attended the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre, where gunmen killed 89 people. To the many tattoos she already had, one detailing Antoine’s date of birth, she added another, of the lead singer of the Eagles of Death Metal weeping and embracing the Eiffel Tower.
The Bataclan is empty these days, unused, a surprisingly small structure near Oberkampf Metro station surrounded by gray and green corrugated metal sheets. As such it stands as a useful symbol of the place the attacks occupy in French minds: half-forgotten, in the process of being tidied up, but still very much there.
There was a controlled explosion at the Stade de France on Sunday, three and a half hours before kickoff in France’s quarterfinal win over Iceland.
It turned out to be nothing more sinister than a car that had been left in a restricted zone, but it served as a reminder that, beyond all the chaos unleashed by the UKs Brexit vote, behind the tournament’s images of colorful fans singing (or brawling, although even memories of the disgrace of the English and Russians seems to have faded), an extremely serious danger still lurks.
Football, if only indirectly, is part of the collective memory of the attacks. The opening ceremony, with its giddy FoliesBergeres theme, made no reference to them and yet during the singing of La Marseillaise that followed, there could have been few whose minds did not go back to the video of the night in November and the fans finally being allowed to leave the stadium belting out the anthem in a spirit of defiance as they went. Thursday in Marseille will be emotional.
In terms of the game itself, it seems that Moussa Sissoko will continue on the right flank as France opt for a 4-2-3-1, with N’Golo Kante missing out despite his suspension being over.
Germany has far greater selection issues.
The loss of Mario Gomez to injury denies the Germans an out-and-out striker, meaning somebody, probably Andre Schurrle or Mario Gotze, being deployed as a false nine. Sami Khedira is also out, which becomes a major problem if Bastian Schweinsteiger, currently rated as doubtful, also misses out. Center back Mats Hummels is suspended and will presumably be replaced by Benedikt Howedes with Julian Draxler returning on the flank as Jogi Low returns to a back four.
Once, a game between France and Germany would have been dominated by talk of 1982 and the controversial World Cup semifinal in Seville when West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher broke the jaw of France’s Patrick Battiston and the Germans came from 3-1 down in extra-time to win on penalties.
Not anymore: annoyance and rivalry have been replaced by camaraderie.