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Football part of France’s post-terror regeneration

A French supporter watches Thursday’s Euro 2016 semifinal soccer match between Germany and France in the Paris fan zone. (Kamil Zihnioglu / Associated Press)
A French supporter watches Thursday’s Euro 2016 semifinal soccer match between Germany and France in the Paris fan zone. (Kamil Zihnioglu / Associated Press)
By John Leicester Associated Press

PARIS – By blowing themselves up at France’s national stadium, suicide bombers created a link, indelibly marked in blood, between football and extremist terror – things that, in normal circumstances, are worlds apart.

Since that night last November, it has been impossible to think of one without the other at the vast arena where France’s national team was playing Germany and where, on Sunday night, it will play Portugal in the European Championship final.

That unwanted bond now also gives football, the French team and the Stade de France important roles in the long healing process that France is still only part-way through.

Regardless of whether Les Bleus win or lose against Cristiano Ronaldo’s team, hosting and celebrating the championship game will be one more step back toward the carefree life France is famous for, even if the reality was never as picture-postcard perfect.

The scale of the horror on Nov. 13, the 130 dead and hundreds injured, rendered frivolities like football completely irrelevant. It is no exaggeration to say that it seemed as though France might never be happy again. The emotions were of the rawest kind: fear, fury, confusion, and survivors’ guilt.

On the airwaves, first aiders spoke of battlefield wounds. The president spoke of war and declared a state of emergency – still in force today. Soldiers, heavily armed and in camouflage gear that in any other context would have been comical because they stick out like sore thumbs against the limestone backdrop of urban Paris, patrolled the streets – a sight both reassuring and worrying because it suggested that France had been permanently changed, which it was.

Soldiers still patrol. It’s frightening how quickly one gets used to having them around.

For the second time in the year, kids came back from school with notes to inform their parents that they’d be observing a moment of silence, as they did after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January.

As flowers, candles and cards stacked up outside the Bataclan concert hall where casualties were most concentrated, people also went in ones, twos and small groups to the 80,000-seat stadium in Paris’ northern outskirts which, before three bombers targeted it, was associated most strongly with happy memories of France’s greatest sporting triumph, when Zinedine Zidane scored twice to down mighty Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.

The visitors wanted answers but got only more questions because there is no explaining the unexplainable. Some took photos of the flecks of bombers’ flesh on walls and tarmac before municipal cleaners power-hosed them down the sewers. The souvenir snappers’ motivations weren’t necessarily voyeuristic or macabre. They were merely mapping the new fault lines the attacks opened in France’s history and future.

Football, of course, cannot wash away France’s trauma nor does it pretend to. But it is true to say that, because it is a powerful positive collective experience, winning at football can have unique restorative powers for a society that has just shared a powerful collective but negative experience.

Hosting the 24-nation Euro and Les Bleus’ advance through six games to the trophy match has put distance between then and now. Winning, especially a 2-0 semifinal victory against world champions Germany, restored a sensation of power and national pride for a country that in November seemed vulnerable and weak, one which despite its nuclear arsenal and permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council could be hurt so grievously by shadowy enemies both within and based far away in Islamic State-controlled territory.

Perhaps best of all, and because football is a sport that so celebrates and encourages these things, the tournament and the team’s success has opened the gates for mass French silliness; allowed them to be wacky, bonkers, cuckoo and to go bananas; to yelp, shriek, howl and yowl; to have beer for breakfast; to bounce up and down together so vigorously in the Metro that it seems carriages could jump their tracks; to walk around with stuffed cockerels on their heads, with faces painted red, white and blue and in body-hugging skin-tight suits that unfortunately leave nothing to the imagination.

In short, football has again enabled the French to not give a damn, at least in 90-minute bursts. And that has been wondrous. Unbridled joy on French faces that were so etched with pain has been the best legacy of this four-week breath of much-needed fresh air, better than spectacular goals, shots, saves or any of the other on-pitch dramas.

On Sunday, as I cannot help but do since November, I will walk to the stadium to report on the final thinking again about the chauffeur who was killed outside after dropping clients off for the exhibition match against Germany that France won 2-0, a victory no one celebrated. Although I would much rather not, I will probably puzzle for the umpteenth time about what the suicide bombers were thinking.

But then the clouds will be blown away by the sight of French people making merry, something that in November seemed might never happen again. At least not soon, in such numbers and with such heart.

Being brutally reminded of the vulnerability of life also changed it. But football has also helped ensure that life, even changed, does go on.

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