Heart of Football: Will of people, players and security forces will decide fate of Euro 2016

The carnage in Paris on Friday night, taking death right to the gates of the Stade de France, was of course not specific towards football. But as 80,000 people tried to leave the stadium, and as the German national team spent the night there for fear of returning to their hotel, there are bound to be repercussions for Euro 2016.

A few weeks from now, on Dec 12, Uefa plans to hold the draw in Paris for the tournament that is scheduled to involve 24 nations playing 51 games next June and July in 10 French venues - concluding at the Stade de France.

Nobody knows right now just how safe, or how relevant, that event can be.

The dead from Friday's coordinated terrorist slaughter across Paris are still being counted.

As I write, even the number of people blown up along with one, or two, suicide bombers outside Gate J at the Stade de France is uncertain.

Some report three fans, some say four, and two bombers. That is dwarfed by the 120 or more slain at restaurants and the rock concert in the city.

But almost as shocking as the incidents was the way that the spectators, and the players, at the game were kept in the dark.

When the blasts were heard about 15 minutes into the game, some fans actually clapped because they thought it was fireworks.

The players hesitated, and played on, and beyond half-time when they were not told what was happening around Paris.

It would certainly have spooked Germany's players because they had been evacuated out of their Paris hotel on the morning of the game following an anonymous telephone warning of a bomb.

Understandably, when Joachim Loew and his team were briefed after the match, the last place they wanted to go back to was the hotel. They were accommodated at the stadium overnight, and left early yesterday morning.

The 2-0 victory for France and the defeat for the world champions were irrelevant.

Sport at such times is an irrelevance. Whether it will still be a festival come June and July next year will surely depend upon the will of the people, the players and the forces of security that will be required to be as cast-iron as anyone can make them.

Uefa expanded the tournament, and France has spent millions on upgrading its 10 best stadiums up and down the country. The argument will be that nobody can allow terrorism to threaten their liberty and their way of life, including the pleasure of sport.

The President of France, Francois Hollande, left the stadium directly after the explosions outside it. Noel le Graet, the French Football Federation president, said the players were not informed until the conclusion of the game.

"At half-time, we said nothing," said le Graet. "We didn't want the public to be disturbed or to create panic in the crowd. At the end of the match, I informed the players, like I am informing you (the media)."

The question of panic is understandable. But this is 2015. Thousands in the crowd, and certainly in the press box, were already looking at their mobile phones and the outbreaks occurring across the city were coming out in a confusion of social media updates and agency snippets.

The referee's final whistle did not trigger panic. Instead, the fans had decisions to make. They could leave, police told them, by selected gates, which obviously did not include the north side of the stadium where two bombs went off, and at a nearby McDonald's restaurant.

The world by now was looking at the spectators, looking at their cell phones. Fans hugged one another, their faces blank, anxious. Do they go to the Metro and down town to Paris which by then was being described as a war zone, do they try somehow to get home to their families, or do they stay on the playing field until the lights go out and they are told it is safe to leave?

Parisiens are growing accustomed to this. There were the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper office and at a Jewish food store in their city earlier this year, and the police shoot-out with terrorist suspects in the Saint Denis area.

I'm sorry, very sorry, if you turn to the sports pages for refuge from the horrors that inevitably fill the front page of your paper today.

But what can I report that is remotely relevant concerning England being beaten 2-0 by a superior Spanish side on Friday? What does it really matter that Ireland drew 1-1 in a foggy Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first leg of a play-off for Euro 2016?

Do you even care that Argentina and Brazil fought out another 1-1 draw in Buenos Aires in a match that counts towards qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia (which might well turn into another security nightmare for football)?

The scores, I'm afraid, pale into insignificance. Our minds are numbed by the horror of mass, indiscriminate destruction of humanity. Whatever the claims from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), most of us will never understand this.

What I can relate is a visit to Saint Denis, the suburb that surrounds the Stade de France, way back in 1998. The stadium is situated north of Paris and it was, even then, a poor suburb housing thousands of immigrant families.

There, on the morning of the World Cup quarter-final between France and Italy in '98, the owner of a local Algerian cafe spoke to me about the impact of a certain player.

Nobody she knew could afford a ticket for the game. "But," she added with a bright smile, "when Zizou is playing for France, I feel more French than the French."

Zizou - alias Zinedine Zidane - was the captain and the most iconic player of Les Bleus.

"Before Zizou had money," the lady said, "he was one of us."

Zidane's family, like many in France, moved there from northern Algeria. The game made him an idol in a nation which is now being blown apart by extremists.

This article was first published on Nov 15, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.