By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) – England beat France 2-0 in an emotional friendly at Wembley on Tuesday when more than 70,000 fans paid tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks with English fans roaring out a spine-tingling rendition of the visitors’ national anthem.
The supporters of both teams also impeccably observed a minute’s silence to honour the victims ahead of a match that will be remembered more for the symbolic nature of the occasion than for most of the action on the pitch.
Played just four days after the Islamic State’s assault in Paris left 129 people dead, the English fans, along with the away supporters, showed remarkable dignity and respect.
The players were led on to the field by Prince William and the team managers — England’s Roy Hodgson and France’s Didier Deschamps — who carried wreaths while fans waved the tricolour.
“It was a very poignant occasion and we achieved all the things we wanted to achieve in the rememberance. An act of defiance was better than the other alternative,” said Hodgson.
France defender Laurent Koscielny, who plays for Arsenal, added: “It was important for everybody that we played, for those who were watching us and for the victims. I know the English, they have a lot of respect for the French, we saw that tonight.”
After kickoff, although France appeared to settle first, almost relieved the pre-match observations were over, England held the upper hand and took a grip with goals from man of the match Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney either side of halftime.
Understandably, after a traumatic few days, France found the going tough on the Wembley turf. “The performance was not easy for us. We had a lack of aggression and concentration but I think maybe it’s a bit normal,” Lloris said.
England midfielder Alli, 19, blasted the ball past his Tottenham Hotspur club goalkeeper Lloris into the top corner for his first international goal after 39 minutes.
“He was almost faultless, he was outstanding,” Hodgson said of Alli, who was winning his fourth cap on his first start.”
Rooney, playing in what is becoming a more usual deep-lying role, doubled England’s lead in the 48th minute after Alli, who started the move, found Raheem Sterling who crossed for Rooney to volley home his 51st international goal.
England striker Harry Kane twice went close to scoring, including a searing long-range drive in the second half which flew just wide.
England, who played poorly in a 2-0 friendly defeat away to Spain on Friday, had not beaten France in six meetings since 1997, but the visitors never made it easy for the home side on what was obviously a difficult evening for their players.
The visitors’ best chance fell to midfielder Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace, one of 13 players in the 23-man France squad who are playing, or have played, their club football in England. His seventh minute shot flew just over Joe Hart’s crossbar.
The unusual nature of the occasion was clear during the game with the crowd applauding France substitutes Lassana Diarra and Antoine Griezmann when they came on in the second half.
A cousin of Diarra’s was killed in Friday’s attacks, while Griezmann’s sister escaped unhurt from the Bataclan concert venue where 89 people lost their lives.
There was hardly a foul during the game and afterwards the fans and the England team roundly applauded the France players.
“It was a difficult night for everyone, especially for the French players and staff,” Rooney said.
“I thought both teams handled it really well. I’m sure this will get shown round the world and show the togetherness and unity in ourselves and France and in football.
“As Didier Deschamps said, it’s not about religion, it’s not about race, it’s about togetherness.
“Anyone can play the game of football and hopefully tonight shows whoever you are around the world, you can come together. We need to stand tall and stand together at this tough time.”
(Reporting by Mike Collett’ Additional reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Ken Ferris)