Discordant note on national anthems after Paris attacks

Where are we heading with the gesture politics of sports responding to the terror attacks in Paris last weekend?

I seem to have been in a minority of one in proposing that now is the time to stop playing national anthems in stadiums because the composition of so many of the songs promotes nationalism, chauvinism, and a supposed expression of us being mightier than you.

To my mind, silence was the appropriate way for the English and the French to stand side by side at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday. France's shock was our shock too, the attempt to bomb the Stade de France was mercifully thwarted by the security that we, alas, have come to expect in stadiums around the world.

Yes, we reel in horror at the carnage inflicted in central Paris at cafes, restaurants and a rock concert. It scares us all that in a civilised capital city in Europe, so-called jihadists could in an hour take the lives of 129 innocent people of various faiths (including Muslims).

But in this current wave of even more deadly attacks on ordinary people enjoying their leisure, there are disturbing inequalities in the way people are reacting.

Once the French Football Federation decided the games would go on, and Les Bleus would represent that defiance in England's national arena four nights later, then standing shoulder to shoulder, player by player, fan to fan, was absolutely appropriate.

The music was fine, too. But I wonder how many Englishmen, women and children doing their best to sing the words understood or empathised with their meaning?

A translation of the chorus to La Marseillaise gives you a clue to my concern:

Aux armes, citoyens,

To arms, citizens,

Formez vos bataillons,

Form your battalions,

Marchons, marchons!

Let's march, let's march!

Qu'un sang impur

Let an impure blood

Abreuve nos sillons! (bis)

Water our furrows! (Repeat)

Impure blood, indeed.

But it happened. The players, even Lassana Diarra, who lost a cousin in the shooting in Paris, felt uplifted by it. And felt able to "marchons" in the next game even though international friendlies between Belgium and Spain (in Brussels) and Germany versus the Netherlands (in Hanover) were called off.

Not only was the stadium in Hanover evacuated before the kick-off, the entire city was shut down in response to what police called credible threats.

And we are still afraid, still on alert across Europe.

Tonight's el Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the biggest football match on earth this weekend, will have security measures which are symptomatic of how everyone is feeling.

There will be 1,400 private security workers and 1,000 police forming three tiers of checks into everything and everyone moving towards the famous old Bernabeu stadium.

Even the sandwich boxes of fans will be inspected because when Atletico Madrid played Benfica in the Champions League in September, some Portuguese supporters smuggled in flares in their lunch boxes.

All the surveillance, everywhere, is the price we learnt to pay at sporting events following the Black September terrorist attack on Israeli athletes and officials during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

And following the dark ages of English hooliganism, that required a militaristic response in that same decade.

We had to sacrifice much of the joy, the innocence, of attending sporting events from that time on. And it is worth the price.

But in this current wave of even more deadly attacks on ordinary people enjoying their leisure, there are disturbing inequalities in the way people are reacting.

When Fajr Ibrahim, Syria's national team coach, spoke to journalists at the Singapore v Syria match, he suggested that it seemed incongruous to observe silence towards the French, yet not to stand one second for the hundreds of thousands killed in Syria's conflict.

Football is going through a crisis of credibility in its leadership right now, but one gathers Ibrahim was admonished for making a political statement around a football game.

But doesn't he have a point?

Who linked arms and stood in silence, or sang anthems, after more than 200 passengers were killed in the Russian jet blown apart near Sharm el-Sheikh on 0ct 31?

What anthems were played after the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was brought down over Ukraine last year, with 298 dead?

Is sport so very different from any other pursuit of happiness in this world of ours?

Maybe it is, in the sense that we dress it up in this nationalism of putting the winners on podiums and, from Formula One to America's Super Bowl to every single time one country plays another, even in friendly games that more often than not are used by managers to field weakened or experimental teams.

Clearly, I am out on a limb on this one. The majority in my country were convinced that standing up to sing La Marseillaise was the appropriate and decent thing to do, and be seen to do.

A week on from the atrocities in Paris, football still wants to pay its respects to the dead, even though the proper precautions at Stade de France ensured that no one - other than the so-called suicide bombers and one man outside the stadium were killed there.

Today and tomorrow, every club in the Premier League, and many others in England, are being asked - ordered - to again play La Marseillaise before each game.

I get the link. There are two French managers of EPL clubs now that Remi Garde has become Aston Villa's new head coach, and of course Arsene Wenger is in a class of his own in terms of his longevity at Arsenal and his contribution to the style of Premier League play.

And there are 72 French players in the English league too.

However, I do not recall the British national anthem, or any other, being played at football games after Islamic suicide bombers took 52 lives and injured more than 700 people as they journeyed on London transport to their jobs in July 2005.

Silent commemoration, and prayer across the spectrum of religions, followed those attacks, and sadly countless others around the world. Regrettably, the Premier League is jumping on a bandwagon for the right reason, but with a tune that once you know the words are inappropriate - as are many nationalistic anthems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Discordant note on national anthems after Paris attacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe