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One Christmas night, soccer united enemies

Posted by Julian Cardillo  December 23, 2013 08:07 PM

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On Christmas Eve night in the year 1914, trench warfare took on a new look.

No hands. Feet only. You earn one point each time you kick the ball into the net.

The simplest, most basic rules of soccer-- known as football and fußball (foo-ss-ball) to the British and Germans, respectively, who played the game during World War I truces near Ypres, Belgium.

These truces were a short break in what was one of the worst wars in world history. The Germans pushed troops into France through Belgium when the war started, but fell back after they were defeated by French and British troops near Paris. When the Germans retreated, stalemates began and trenches were formed.

Nearly 100,000 troops broke free of war's chains in the trenches at Saint Yvon, Belgium on Christmas Eve, according to Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, a member of the British Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was a machinegunner who was hospitalized with hearing damage from combat. But his account about life in the trenches, including details of the Christmas truce, lives on in a series of cartoons and writings which he called The Bystander.

The Germans began the truce by adorning their trench with candles. Then they started singing Christmas carols and the British followed suit. It didn't take long for troops from both camps to venture out of their trenches into No Man's Land.

"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas for anything," wrote Bairnsfather. "I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons...I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange...The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."

No Man's Land was many things. It was first and foremost a desolate ground where a person took his life in his own hands. It was also an inhospitable burial ground for a slew of the war's victims.

That night, the ceasefire took away the ground's hostility and turned it into a fraternizing ground and later, a soccer pitch.

After the German and British sides exchanged liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, and other small articles, a soccer game began. A Scottish soldier "seemed to procure a ball from nowhere," according to one German account.

The quality of the game was not of the same ilk as Champions League. One report says there may have been 50 players on each side. The playing surface was the muddy, wretched No Man's Land that had been pummeled by incessant heavy rain, cold weather and recently cleaned of its dead bodies. There were no nets, either. On one side of the "field" was a pair of dark grey German helmets that were marked with a gold eagle and a spike at the top. At the other end were two British helmets that resembled turtles.

There's no record of the final score. But this scrimmage was only for kicks. Nevertheless, the camaraderie that formed between the Germans and the British that night helped extend the truce to New Year's Day.

Ceasefires such as this were relatively uncommon. After all, World War I garnered the name "The war to end all wars" almost exclusively because of the violent atrocities that were a bi-product of trench warfare. What's more, many in theater believed that truces were wrong.

French Gen. Charles de Gaulle and British Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien forbade truces. So did a young Adolf Hitler, according to a piece by the New York Times. Hitler wasn't the only soldier who was active at the time and opposed ceasefires and fraternization. Bairnsfather admitted that between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day in 1914, some unruly troops from both sides shot at one another.

Despite these outliers, the idea that soccer could unite two peoples at war is a powerful one. Call it a Christmas miracle. Call it history. The story of the 1914 truce isn't widely known. Neither is the fact that soccer played such a key role.

Today soccer is known as the beautiful game. The adjective "beautiful" in that expression can take on various meanings. Sometimes it's about how fabulous it is when a player puts just enough spin on a ball to curl a shot into a net. Other times it's about watching a player dance his way through a traffic jam of defenders before easily depositing the ball into the goal. And sometimes it's about seeing a goalkeeper take to the air like Spider-Man and make a seemingly impossible, outstretched save on a shot that's not supposed to be stopped.

But soccer is a language, too. A beautiful one. It's recognized around the world as a passionate, yet very basic game. And for the most part, for anyone who plays the game, whether on a beat up field in Havana, at the finals of the World Cup, or in the war-stained mud of World War I's trenches, it's fun.

Merry Christmas.

If you want to reach Julian email him at julianccardillo@gmail.com and follow him on twitter @juliancardillo

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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