I watched Football Focus on Saturday when the programme was presented live from Afghanistan. It proved that wherever you are in the world, whatever your situation, football can unite people in a very special way, which makes it the best sport in the world.
Seeing the Prime Minister and former footballers Kevin Kilbane, John Hartson and Michael Owen having a kick about with the troops on a rough playing surface with camouflage netting for goals reminded me that the beautiful game can be played anywhere.
Watching the programme, it reminded me of something that I had previously researched. On Christmas Day in 1914, 100,000 British and German soldiers dropped their guns and played a game of football in no-man’s land in World War 1, before returning to fighting against each other just a few days later.
The game was part of a truce agreed between soldiers of both sides, where no one would open fire on Christmas Day.
The unofficial truce took started on December 24, 1914, in the trenches around Ypres. The match itself, historians suggest, happened the day after.
It started with German soldiers putting decorations up around their trenches and singing Christmas carols, including Stille Nacht – Silent Night.
The British soldiers responded by singing O Come all ye Faithful.
Soldiers on both sides then shouted Christmas greetings to each other and suggested meeting in No Man’s Land when they shook hands and exchanged cigarettes.
Bertie Felstead, the last survivor of that football match, died in July 2001 aged 106 years. Before his death, he was able to recall parts of the events.
He claimed that nothing was planned and that what happened was entirely spontaneous.
A football was produced from somewhere – though he could no re-call from where. Historians have however suggested that the ball came from the British trench.
“It was not a game as such – more of a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half-an-hour, and no-one was keeping score.” – Bertie Felstead
The truce ended when a British major ordered the British soldiers back to their trench with a reminder that “they were there to kill the Hun not to make friends with him.” The mood of Christmas friendliness was shortly broken by the firing of British artillery. Bertie Felstead described the Germans as “all right”.
A game of football will excite anyone, and this stunning event in 1914 just proves it. The fact that two armies, locked in a deadly and brutal conflict, put what they were fighting for aside and had a kick about is hard to comprehend. But that’s the power of football, the world’s most loved sport and a pastime that can unite unlikely groups of people.
Have a great Christmas!