A night at the Stade de France

The statement from the German football team said it all.

“We came to Paris to do what connects us all – to play football, together, against one another and in friendship. To have an enjoyable evening together with our fans, to show sporting ambition, but particularly we came for a fair and peaceful encounter.

“We all looked forward to playing in the Stade de France, to have a great night of football, which ended up turning into a nightmare.

“It was a dull bang which changed everything. It produced pictures that will remain in our heads for a long time. We spent the night doing a lot of thought-processing. We asked ourselves why something like this could happen? How is such inhumanity even possible? There were a lot of answers but none that could explain these cowardly attacks.

“We lost a game of football on Friday evening. But nothing is as irrelevant as that right now.”

The dull bang the players heard was a man outside the Stade de France blowing himself up. He had a ticket to the game. Fifteen minutes into the friendly soccer match between France and Germany, he tried to gain entry.

Had he got in, French police believe he would have detonated his bomb to start a stampede, sending spectators fleeing outside into an ambush.

Who knows how many would have died? The stadium was at capacity. Eighty thousand people. Among them were 1,200 volunteers and emergency workers who were given free tickets for their efforts following the Alps Germanwings plane crash in March.

As Airbus executive Rainer Ohler told Reuters: “It was supposed to be an evening of French and German celebration and appreciation after that tragic event.”

The bomber had a further tragic event in mind. But he didn’t get in. Security guards frisked him at the entrance and discovered his explosives vest.  He backed away and, by his own hand, left this world.

Inside the stadium, the crowd heard the blast. Thinking it fireworks, they cheered.

Also inside, French President Francois Hollande was being told the truth of the matter. This was not fireworks. Paris was under siege.

By the time the second and third bombers dispatched themselves outside the stadium a few minutes later, Hollande had been evacuated.

Before he left, he made the decision that the game should go on, that the spectators were safer in the ground than among whatever was unfolding outside.

The teams played on unknowing, to a 2-0 French win, while the spectators gleaned what snippets they could through text messages and social media.

Only when the players came off the ground did they learn what had happened in Paris over the past hour and a half. What was still happening.

Spectators gathered on the ground, unsure whether to leave. When they did depart, they burst into song. Their national song. La Marseillaise.

The German players had nowhere to go. Their hotel had been the subject of a bomb threat that morning and they were told to stay away. They prepared themselves for a night at the Stade de France.

Les Bleus stayed with them. They had relatives caught up in the attacks around the city, families to return to. But they stayed at the stadium, in solidarity with their guests.

Tonight, the entire French team, including Lassana Diarra who lost a cousin, takes on England in a friendly at Wembley. They were given the option to withdraw and refused. English fans have been asked to sing La Marseillaise. It will be something to behold.

Five years ago, a French player revolt during the FIFA World Cup prompted a rebuke from the nation’s Sports Minister. They were told they had tarnished the image of France and destroyed the dreams of their countrymen.

But in this, they have done their country proud. Right when they needed to.

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