So soon after Britons voted out of the European Union, this was unexpected: Enthusiastic throngs of Frenchmen merrily turning out to cheer them on.
After all, the French helped build the EU and hold dear its ideals of unity. For many of them, Brexit, the turning of backs across the English Channel, was a rude slap in the face.
And yet, with hearts full of sadness, the French did turn out for their now-estranged neighbors. In droves. With football scarves and funny hats.
Only, perhaps, at a football stadium would this have been possible.
They bought their tickets for the European Championship round of-16 match months ago, not knowing which teams would make it this far and play for their entertainment in the Parc des Princes stadium. As it happened, almost as though someone was playing a cruel joke on them, the Paris crowds got Wales against Northern Ireland. Two teams from Britain that on Thursday collectively voted “thanks, but no thanks” to decades of European construction.
Talk about rubbing salt into French wounds. This could be a sour affair.
Yet the opposite proved true.
Those who administer sports, and many people who make their living playing them, like to talk about how their world and the world of politics are separate, even when they are clearly not. Often, they’ll trot out the “sports and politics shouldn’t mix” line as a handy excuse for not taking a public stand on tough issues. Should major sports events go to countries with poor human rights records, should they reward rulers who lock up political opponents? “Sorry,” sports have said time and again, “that’s political. That’s not our game.”
But that was almost word for word what French spectators said as they settled into their seats. For 90 minutes, they were prepared to forget, if not forgive, the people from the nations whose teams they were about to see. After 2015 with two extremist terror attacks in Paris and plenty of other grim issues to worry about, French fans weren’t about to let their disappointment with Brexit spoil the Euro 2016 party they are hosting. And in doing so, they also proved how the willingly apolitical stance of sports makes sense at times, because it allows groups of people with gripes against other groups of people to sometimes put those feelings aside, if only for the length of a match.
Nicolas Malatesta and Guillaume Ravera traveled down from the French port city of Le Havre for Saturday’s game.
“Very sad,” Malatesta said when asked for his thoughts on the British referendum result. He used a finger to trace the imaginary path of a tear rolling down his cheek.
But the match “is a truce,” he added. “Time to shut out the outside world.”
“After the 12 months we have just been through, we need a good party,” said Ravera. “Different people together, all behind football. It does so much good.”
Northern Ireland’s story at this tournament offers another example of sports helping to cross divides. Its team, playing in the European Championship for the first time, has produced unspectacular football: largely defensive and with just two goals — both against Ukraine in the group stage, just enough for it to squeeze into the last 16.
But its fans have been spectacular. They were a riot of good humor against the Welsh, lustily singing even after their team lost 1-0, with Gareth McAuley diverting the ball into his own goal. Northern Irish fans said the team’s progress through the tournament has helped bring together their community that from the 1960s through the 1990s was so violently divided between Protestants and Catholics. Some 3,700 people died in the four decades of strife called “the troubles.”
There are still tensions. But they weren’t at all evident in the way the Northern Irish crowd clad in green jumped and sang in unison in Paris. Northern Irish fans said they were particularly struck that Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander now part of their Catholic-Protestant government, traveled to France earlier in the tournament to attend one of the team’s matches for the first time.
“It has really captured the imagination of everybody,” said Joan Cassells, who traveled from just outside Belfast with her husband and son for the game against Wales.
Objectively speaking, the match was awful, with disjointed football lacking skill. At least the banks of Welsh and Northern Irish fans offered a spectacle for neutrals, even if the two teams didn’t. Just enough to push Brexit to the back of French minds.
“I’ll forgive them today,” said Thomas Brenot, from Paris.
But just, he added, for the length of the match.