On Tuesday night, England played and beat France, in the kind of match that needs an asterisk. Following that asterisk, underneath any naked display of just the scoreline, would be the words: “* nobody really cared what the score was.” Had it been a competitive fixture, it almost certainly would have been called off over the weekend, and the game rearranged.
It was plain from the performances of the French players that they weren’t especially committed to the match as a game of football. The obvious joke to be made is that any reasonably competent team that loses to England must have their mind on other things. As competent as England have been since the World Cup, there is no indication that the team has significantly improved. Still, Roy Hodgson deserves credit for having sensibly and effectively navigated qualification for Euro 2016 while replacing players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard at the heart of the team. It would have been hard to get worse than the World Cup performances, but plenty of England managers past would have managed it somehow.
He also deserves credit for the introduction of younger players into the squad without any drop off and, perhaps, some mild improvement. The team works as a team, rather than a collection of individuals, and Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph, Nathaniel Clyne and others seem at home in the side. Dele Alli, too, has given England its traditional youngster to pile all of its hopes on, until Ross Barkley has a resurgence, and then England will alternately praise and demonize the two of them as they enjoy good and poor form before breaking metatarsals. That’s because Hodgson can only change the team, not the press, supporters, or national character.
What had changed national character, slightly, is the terrorist attack in France at the weekend. Had that not happened, the French fans might well have been subjected to chants about the war and the usual of tedious, though essentially toothless, xenophobia (just wait ‘til next summer when England is knocked out of the tournament on penalties. Then a select bunch of English fifty-year-olds will smash up a few Peugeots). Instead, the country set aside one hobby to embrace another, the grand gesture of sentiment. This can come across as crass and self-serving, like when the nation marks Armistice Day by bullying foreign players into honoring dead soldiers who very possibly helped harm their homelands. But on Tuesday night it seemed like a simple, effective, and generous acknowledgement of the horrific experience that Paris had gone through.
Indeed, it was an acknowledgement not just of something as nebulous as a capital city having been attacked, or horrible stories on the news, but of the tangible effects on France’s players. Lassana Diarra lost a cousin, and Antoine Griezmann came close to losing a sister. Almost certainly, given the toll of casualties, there will be other players who have suffered similarly if less closely—a friend of a friend lost here, a former colleague there. Diarra came on to play in the second half to a standing ovation, which for once did not seem like an over-egged moment in a football stadium.
The match, though, was still taking place around the other events. It was the background for the whole night. Like asking a broken-hearted friend over to watch a film and drink booze, the plot wasn’t really the point of the exercise. Alli scored an excellent goal, driving forward from winning a tackle on Morgan Schneiderlin to score a goal from distance into the top corner, Pogba-style. He later repeated the exercise on Schneiderlin and Wayne Rooney scored a volley in order to maintain his excellent recent scoring record for England, moving onto 51 goals for his country.
For all his on-pitch problems, Rooney deserves credit for a sensitive handling of the situation before and after the match. Players are generally trained to say nothing to the media at the best of times, for fear of tripping up, and you can imagine there’s little early preparation in these players’ careers for moments like this. He handled it respectfully and maturely.
And that’s all excellent. Hodgson, England players, the press, and the fans all behaved as well as could be expected, and did their stuff on the pitch. The past year has been a productive one for the manager and his evolving squad. But they still lost against Spain on Friday, and this game against France still counted for nothing much in the grand footballing scheme of things. On balance, it’s the result that’s the footnote.