Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Nineteen
Over the past few months it had become common for football writers to refer to next summer’s European Championship in France as “the last great tournament”. Fans, readers and viewers won’t have much sympathy, but when you’re away from home for a month, working 12-hour days as standard seven days a week, there’s consolation in manageable distances between stadiums, the ready availability of great food and booze and of being in a country whose culture you pretty much get.
Russia and Qatar, assuming they do go ahead, will be tough – for differing reasons. Euro 2020, with its multiple venues scattered across the continent, won’t have the same feel. We were looking forward to France 2016. Then came the massacres in Paris on November 19. Even if Isis don’t try anything in France next summer, it will be a very different tournament now, with a ramped up security presence and almost certain false alarms. I was at Slovenia’s qualifying play-off against Ukraine the Tuesday after the attacks. Early in the game, somebody set off a firecracker and you saw the whole stand flinch. Moods can change quickly, but France 2016 will not, as we’d hoped, be a tournament of wine and cheese but of tension and anxiety.
In the wider scheme of things, of course the fact that a football tournament may not be as much fun as it should have been ranks pretty low when considering the impact of Isis. I doubt I was the only person who felt a little uncomfortable at the way football thrust itself front and centre after the attacks (at least I think it did; maybe it just felt like that because I read so much football media).
But then this was the first time there’d been a terrorist attack on a major football match (or at least one that hadn’t been stifled early in the planning stage). And given how many people go to watch football each week, that does make it a major issue. As after the tube bombings in 2005, my first thought was to wonder how it hadn’t happened earlier. These are the softest of targets. Even if you search everybody going into a ground, it would be easy enough to attack crowds on their way to or from a stadium. Which is, of course precisely what makes it so terrifying.
There was at least some of the usual snideness and cynicism before the England v France friendly and I confess I had my doubts about certain aspects of the memorials. I wasn’t at Wembley – I was in Maribor – but the reaction dispelled them. The gratitude from the French public for English solidarity seemed heartfelt and for some there appeared genuine catharsis. Just as football can claim for itself too great a significance, it’s important not to go too far the other way: symbolic moments can still have a power and that friendly, perhaps, was at least a sign that something approaching normality could still be achieved.
But there is more than symbolism to football’s value. Maribor was the third game I’d seen in five days. I was in Zenica for Bosnia against Ireland and in Budapest for Hungary against Norway. Across those days I ate, drank and chatted with an array of journalists and other friends: English, Irish, Bosnian, Hungarian, Norwegian, Slovenian and Ukrainian. These are people I’d never have met had it not been for football, people with whom I’d have had little in common but for football, and people whose cultures I understand better and respect more because of football.
It provides anecdotes that will keep us entertained into our dotage: nobody who was in Zenica will forget the Irish journalist who, accidentally, hit a former Bosnia rugby international over the head with a chair, the Bosnian’s anger or the Irishman’s increasingly exasperated apologies, prompting the ritual retelling of the anecdote from Italia ‘90 about the Irish physio Mick Byrne inadvertently smashing a galleon made of matchsticks in a hotel lobby, seeing his apologies rebuffed by the hotel manager and eventually snapping, “I’m not fucking sorry any more. Fuck you and fuck your boat.” Football itself is almost irrelevant in that: it is simply the currency in which the transaction is made, but it seems to me those transactions are hugely valuable.
I then went on to Belgrade when I interviewed Vladica Popović and Dragoslav Šekularac, both of whom were in the Crvena Zvezda team that drew 3-3 with Manchester United in their final game before the Munich air crash. Šekularac had become friends with Bobby Charlton and recalled fondly taking him to the bar in the Hotel Metropol where he got a discount. When United returned to Belgrade in 1966 to play Partizan in the European Cup semi-final, Popović sought out Harry Gregg to wish him well. Perhaps for no better reason than that football is such a simple game, it facilitates such exchanges. (Of course, as hooliganism, social media and the comments sections show, it can also be a stage for stupidity, violence and general prickishness.)
And that it can be a global medium for the exchanges of views sets it in direct opposition to Isis and its determination to impose on the world its own restrictive vision.
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