Goals from Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney gave England a 2-0 win over France, but events on the pitch took a firm back seat on an emotional night at London’s Wembley Stadium. Players and supporters of both teams joined together in a sign of solidarity and remembrance for those who lost their lives just four days earlier in the Paris terror attacks. In an unprecedented break from the long-time rivalry between the two neighbors on the pitch, English fans joined their French counterparts in singing La Marseillaise ahead of kickoff, while the colors of the French tricolor were displayed both in the stands and on the famous arch that soars above Wembley Stadium.
After such a moving display of unity and with France so soon removed from playing in the Stade de France as the atrocities across their capital city unfolded around them, the action on the pitch at Wembley was very much secondary. It was always going to take something special to get the fans into the match and that’s exactly what England’s Alli produced.
The 19-year-old showed just why he is rated as such a strong prospect and why he has already made a considerable impact in the Premier League with Tottenham. Having won a crunching tackle with Yohan Cabaye in midfield, Alli strode forward and having received a return pass had no hesitation in firing a superb strike from 25 yards that flew past Tottenham teammate Hugo Lloris into the top corner of the net via a slight deflection off Laurent Koscielny. He had a prominent role in England’s second goal, too, just after halftime, winning the ball back before Rooney blasted home Raheem Sterling’s cross.
Making his first international start, at aged 19, Alli was the youngest member of a midfield, also including club mate Eric Dier and Ross Barkley, all under the age of 22. Indeed, it was the youngest England team fielded since 1959. Mostly for reasons unconnected to football, it will be a match none are likely to forget.
The same is of course even truer for their French counterparts. It later emerged that the Stade de France, where France were taking on Germany on Friday, had been a direct target of the terrorists. And two players had been touched even further by the atrocities in Paris. The cousin of midfielder Lassana Diarra had been killed in the attacks, while the sister of forward Antoine Griezmann escaped the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people lost their life.
There had been understandable initial doubt about whether the match could and should go ahead so soon after. The head of the French Football Federation declared that it would do so, and all of the French squad elected to make the trip to London. Diarra and Griezmann were among them, and after beginning from the bench made appearances in the second half.
Among those that did start, there was a further, likely unintentional, show of unity between the teams, with France lining up with six players who ply their trade in the English Premier League. Another, Hatem Ben Arfa, was in the Premier League until recently. And after miserable spells at Newcastle United and Hull City was making his first start for France in more than three years following a return to form in Ligue Un.
The entirety of both squads lined up for what was a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise from the more tham 70,000 fans in attendance, helped by the words of the anthem being displayed on the big screens. Once the match got underway, there was a far from surprising subdued air around proceedings both on the pitch and in the stands.
France had the better of the early efforts, but no one could fault them for putting in a performance lacking in real intensity. And gradually England, which qualified for next year’s European Championship in France with the only perfect record, began to gain the ascendency. Fed by Harry Kane, Rooney, at the age of 30, the oldest England player on show, went close with an effort just past the half-hour mark. Only minutes later Alli sent England on the way to victory and announced the start of what promises to be a distinguished international career.
Two minutes into the second half he shone again. Once more it was his tackle, this time on the only just arrived Paul Pogba, which started the move, before Sterling picked out Rooney at the back post to fire home his 51st England goal. Achievements on the pitch, though, faded into the background on a unique night.