The 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer (football for the rest of the world besides the US) tournament in Qatar has been the source of controversy for several reasons. Staging such an international extravaganza in the middle of a war in Ukraine, with Covid-19 still being a major health crisis, and with charges of bribery and malfeasance on the part of FIFA as well as the abuse of foreign workers by Qatar…well, you get the idea.
1914 was a similar time to hold an international soccer match. The turmoil in the world at that time was palpable. Yet, England and Germany, two rival nations, faced off in a friendly match outside of any tournament. In fact, it wasn’t only one friendly, but, rather, a series of games played across one wonderful and improbable day. The event was so historic that the British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, later made a short film about that day. The story of how all that came about is still a bit murky, however.
One major obstacle to overcome was a basic lack of trust. The two nations had no reason to believe that the other one would honor the agreement to play, even. Such was the fear each nation had of the other at that time. Officials from both countries even tried to stop the games, but it was the players themselves on both sides who insisted that the series should be played. There was no stopping them, apparently. These men wanted to play the games no matter what the higher-ups said.
And played they were.
One interesting aspect of these particular matches was that the participants were all amateurs. FIFA, which had been created a decade earlier, had sanctioned matches between England and Germany, and, indeed, the national teams from the two countries had met on the pitch four times in the previous six years in FIFA-sanctioned games. England had won 3 of them, and one of them ended in a draw. However, these games were neither FIFA-approved nor played by the nations’ national squads. Besides, the games had no referees and no real goals.
You see, it was Christmas Eve, in France, in that first December of World War I. And along a 20-mile long stretch of no-man’s land between the English and German trenches, soldiers from both sides came out of their foxholes and lines and met in the middle of all that death to play a kid’s game during what has since been called The Christmas Truce.
May there be peace on Earth.