SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — Ultimately, the game of football or even the result, 2-1 for France against Romania, didn't matter as much as the simple fact that people came for it in their tens of thousands. From across France and beyond, packed tight into a stadium that suicide bombers recently targeted.
Coming together, eight months on from that night of horror, in a red, white and blue human tide of passion for the opening match of the European Championship felt cathartic after all the trauma, like a new beginning.
Nothing says 'We're not scared and we won't be terrorized' quite like 80,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in what, effectively, was a giant group-hug that France so badly needed. Rarely has "La Marseillaise," the national anthem, been sung with such emotion as it was by this crowd, with spectators holding a hand over their hearts as they cried: "To arms, citizens! Form your battalions!"
The French government and tournament organizers have been saying for months now that cancelling the Euros because of the risk of terror attacks was out of the question. Doing so, they argued, would hand a victory to the murderers who shot and blew up 130 people in a Paris concert hall, bars, restaurants and outside the Stade de France on Nov. 13.
Only at the end of the tournament, after the July 10 final and if all goes well, will we know if they were right.
But on this opening night, it certainly felt like they might be.
Picked at random from among the crowds, it was impossible to find anyone who felt that going ahead with the tournament was the wrong thing to do. Quite the opposite. Now, more than ever, they said, they wanted to stand up and be counted. Send the message that life goes on by coming to the Stade de France in person, by bringing their kids and loved ones, by braving the rings of police security, and by paying no attention to the little voice in the back of all French minds that terrorists could strike again.
Is that bravery? Perhaps. What is certain: On this night, the French reclaimed their right to be happy.
"We have to be here. Otherwise they win," said Jean-Francois Hamon, a fan who brought his son Paul, aged 8, and nephew Charles, 16, to demonstrate that living with fear doesn't mean surrendering to it.
Arriving four hours ahead of the 9 p.m. kick-off to beat traffic, they waited outside the stadium at the exact spot where one of three bombers detonated his suicide belt while France was playing Germany. Metal bolts packed in with the explosives left pockmarks still visible in an aluminum traffic pole.
Hamon was aware of the scars and what they represented, but he paid them no mind.
"We are going to sing how happy we are to be here. We are going to be proud to be happy together, to sing together," he said. "It's much more than a football match."
And bravo, too, to the foreign visitors who could have stayed away, but instead came in strength of numbers and stood at France's side.
Downing a pre-match beer together, John Rossos, a Canadian, and David Knowles, a Briton, were unnerved when told that, eight months earlier, a man was killed where they were now standing, outside the Events bar next to the stadium. Manuel Colaco Dias, a 63-year-old Portuguese man who had lived in France for more than 40 years, was the only person killed by the stadium attackers. Employed as a driver, Dias had just dropped off three clients when a suicide bomber detonated nearby.
Still, the pair was adamant that hosting the Euros would do France the power of good.
"It's time for healing," Rossos said.
Knowles added: "I'm very proud of the French people for carrying on with games."
Romanians won't see it this way, but the opening win for the home side was important if this tournament is to grow into a month-long, country-wide party. Strikes and labor protests ahead of the match had dampened the mood. Dimitri Payet's late winning goal, an absolute beauty he curled in from outside the penalty area, sent French fans home with smiles on their faces even bigger than when they arrived.
A deep run, say to the semifinals or beyond, by Les Bleus could keep them there.
But that's for another day, another match.
This was a good beginning.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester