In times like these, when recent events in Paris have the world in mourning and looking on fearfully, we need sport more than ever.
“Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.” – Pope John Paul II.
We watch it every week, we often complain about the trivial details, but what happened in Paris on Friday evening brought everything back into perspective. As the city descended into panic, the friendly between Germany and the French national team continued at the Stade de France.
On Friday evening, an international game (albeit a friendly) between two huge nations lost all significance. Regardless of the fact it was a friendly, sport became very much secondary to everything; in the grand scheme of things it couldn’t have been less important.
On Saturday it was confirmed that France’s next game – against England at Wembley on Tuesday – will go ahead, as it should. It is time for the world to unite against acts of terror, and sport has the ability to unite like nothing else.
Perhaps most vitally, it gives people something ultimately meaningless to care about. Transcending barriers and uniting people with true emotions, nothing means more than watching your team play a game you love. The sense of community it can foster is remarkable, the boundaries it can transcend endless. Backgrounds, beliefs, ages and genders are consigned to the bin. That doesn’t mean football ignores the differences between people as, at its best, it helps people recognise and respect them.
But it’s more than that, it’s a comfort. Back in April, as Aston Villa played Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final, I received the news that my granddad had passed away just as Christian Benteke equalised for the Villains. An odd atmosphere in my house, where everyone had been glued to the opening stages of the match, was broken by Fabian Delph’s eventual winner which meant Arsenal would face Villa in the final a month later. Sport doesn’t matter, but there are moments it matters more than anything. Those moments can be even more special when the truly important things are weighing on one’s mind.
It isn’t just emotion, but the way in which football transcends boundaries it has created itself. Anyone who was at the Emirates Stadium last weekend would have felt something special, as the entire ground fell into silence on Remembrance Sunday in order to reflect on those who have lost their lives at war. As Martin Atkinson blew his whistle, a roar went around the stadium, a rallying call to arms for the north London derby, but even such an occasion can’t prevent fans of both sides uniting when necessary.
Sport regularly provides us with moments of delirious joy, anger or sadness and it all has the power to bring people together. Something that provides you with incredible highs and lows, fuelled by genuine emotions but ones that generally dissipate into the background later on, football is the greatest distraction in the world.
The world needs a distraction right now. Football is so insignificant in times like this, but it couldn’t be more important.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination,” Nelson Mandela said at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000.
When England welcome France at Wembley on Tuesday, it is time to unite. The match itself doesn’t matter, but the game is so important.