On the Soccer Field, a Day of Jitters, Unity – Wall Street Journal

The words ‘Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité’ and the French flag adorned the side of Wembley Stadium before Tuesday’s soccer match between England and France in London.

Four days after the French and German national soccer teams played through suicide bombings at the gates of a Paris stadium, each headed for the field again Tuesday. One match ended in a celebration of resolve; the other deteriorated into fear and confusion.

Germany abruptly canceled its exhibition match against the Netherlands in Hannover less than two hours before kickoff because of a security threat. A later news conference didn’t reveal any specific details, but a security official said the decision was made because of a concrete threat.

Meanwhile, France faced England at Wembley Stadium, some 200 miles northwest of the Stade de France where attackers struck three times on Friday. On a solemn evening, the hosts lit up Wembley in the colors of the French flag and English supporters joined in singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

But the atmosphere around international soccer was still anxious. A day earlier, Belgium called off an exhibition at home against Spain for security reasons. The game was due to be played in Brussels, where Belgian authorities were hunting for suspects connected to the Paris attacks.

In Germany on Tuesday, police quickly evacuated the stadium and the surrounding area. Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top German officials were expected to attend the match, but Ms. Merkel abruptly flew back to Berlin shortly after landing at Hannover Airport.

About 20 minutes after fans started filing into a stadium with a capacity of 49,000 people in Hannover on Tuesday night, the authorities canceled the match. Heavily armed police moved through the area around the stadium pleading with people to depart and searching vehicles, including a television broadcast truck.

“Please immediately make your way home,” the police said over loudspeakers. “There is no reason for you to stay here any longer.”

Boris Pistorius, the state interior minister for Lower Saxony, which includes Hannover, said later that no arrests had been made and no explosives had been found.

“We received a serious tip that an explosive attack was planned for the stadium,” Hannover’s police chief, Volker Kluwe, said in an interview on ARD public television.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said indications of a threat against the stadium increased Tuesday evening, forcing the cancellation. Providing additional details, he said, would unsettle the public. “We were all looking forward to this game…and that made this decision all the more bitter and more difficult.”

Even so, Tuesday’s events brought Europe’s terrorism fears deeper to the European Union’s most populous country, which itself hasn’t experienced a major Islamist attack in recent years. Earlier Tuesday, special police units conducted a manhunt near the city of Aachen in western Germany, following up on tips that a top suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was in the area. After making seven arrests, police determined that their sources had identified a man who looked similar to Mr. Abdeslam and released everyone they had detained.

In London, Wembley Stadium became the site of an emotional French tribute. Before England’s 2-0 victory, France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, and England manager Roy Hodgson flanked Prince William to lay floral wreaths on the field to commemorate the 129 victims of Friday’s attacks. They were joined by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Emergency-services personnel left the AWD Arena in Hannover, Germany, on Tuesday after the cancellation of the international friendly match between Germany and The Netherlands amid a security threat.

England broke its normal protocol and sang “God Save the Queen” first, before the stadium echoed with a joint rendition of “La Marseillaise.” The lyrics flashed on the big screen while England fans dusted off their school French to sing them.

“It was a moment of communion,” Mr. Deschamps said of the anthem in French. “It grabs you by the heart, it grabs you in the gut, and it’s beautiful.”

The squads, whose players wore black armbands, then met at midfield for a minute of silence.

The French federation elected on Saturday to go ahead with the match after approval from U.K. security authorities.

“Symbolically, they felt they wanted to go ahead and do it and we were very happy then to meet their concerns,” said Martin Glenn, the chief executive of England’s Football Association.

In the hours before kickoff, fans streamed through Wembley Way, pausing to photograph the giant French flags emblazoned on England’s national stadium. The words “Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité” appeared in huge letters in the tricolor of the French flag.

“These aren’t the circumstances we were supposed to be here in,” said Jerome Meriaux, a 22-year-old Parisian who had been in the Stade de France on Friday and bought his ticket for Tuesday in the spring.

Draped in a French tricolor and puffing a hand-rolled cigarette, Alex Wyatt looked at first glance like a typical Gallic sport fan. But the 27-year-old hails from Pinner, a few miles down the road from the stadium. “I’m supporting France tonight, to show my sympathy and solidarity,” he said.

The game itself was meaningless, an exhibition with no competitive stakes. And after a uniquely stressful weekend, not all of the French players were looking forward to competing again so soon.

On Friday night, Les Bleus had stayed inside the Stade de France with the German squad until nearly 3 a.m., before receiving clearance to leave. They relocated to the national training center at Clairefontaine to live and train until the England game. None of the French players had been home yet.

“I think the decision to stay in Clairefontaine was taken very quickly,” France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said before the game. “We are only human, we would have liked to have seen family and our nearest and dearest.”

The whole French squad involved with Friday’s game traveled to London, even the two players who were directly affected by the attacks. Antoine Griezmann’s sister was in the Bataclan concert hall when it was stormed, but escaped unharmed. Fellow midfielder Lassana Diarra lost a cousin in the attacks. Both men came off the bench to play on Tuesday.

In the early moments of the match, the Wembley atmosphere was subdued, especially in the upper reaches of the stands where most of France’s traveling supporters had tickets. They perked up in the 11th minute with the second Marseillaise of the night.

U.K. security officials said they had stepped up their initial plans for Tuesday’s encounter. In addition to higher numbers of armed officers, a detachment of soldiers was also on standby in case of emergency.

The show of force was to embolden fans and players, rather than because police believed a similar Paris-style attack was imminent, said Britain’s most senior police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe.

Speaking outside the stadium, Mr. Hogan-Howe said he understood the Germany cancellation and reiterated that there was no information of a similar threat here.

“I don’t think there’s a safer game to go to,” said England fan Jamie Cross. He came from Portsmouth to bring his son to his first live game, despite the concerns of his wife. “It’s not about the football tonight. We want to show we stand with France.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com and Anton Troianovski at anton.troianovski@wsj.com


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