Photo Credit: https://www.worldsoccer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/world-war-1-football.jpg
Remember when Covid first hit in a big way and all football leagues were shut down and we were all really depressed about it? Well, if you were alive during the 19th century, and specifically during world war I, you wouldn’t really have that problem. In fact, 2020 is the first time in history that European leagues were completely shut down for an extended period of time. In case any of you have ever wondered what became of football during the devastating times of war, especially really impactful ones like the first world war, I’m here to tell you.
The first world war lasted from 1914 to 1918 and was the cause of the death of millions of people, both army personnel as well as civilians. However, even in such dark and depressing times where people’s future and freedom were constantly in danger, football continued, surreal as it might sound. When the war was first declared in August 1914, the English Football Association was faced with the decision of either shutting down everything or letting the season continue as it had every year. They were ready to abandon the season, but the War Office said that it was not necessary to do so. Initially, it was believed in England that the war would only last a couple of months, instead of 4 long years. Extraordinarily, the season continued uninterrupted and concluded in its entirety in April 1915.
Footballers actually faced a lot of criticism from people who were pro-war. They argued that if these professional footballers were fit and healthy (perhaps more so than many of the young men actually serving in the army), they should march into battle for their country instead of playing football for entertainment. A lot of the disdain for football also came from the fact that at the time, it was viewed as a sport mainly for the working class in England and it gave the upper and middle class an opportunity to mock the workers for their lack of patriotism and for their strange interest in a sport that contributed nothing to the nation’s war efforts. The justification for the continuation of football was that it gave the public something to look forward to, something positive to focus on instead of the war. Apparently, this is a completely valid reason from a psychological point of view. It is often underestimated how much a sport, especially football, contributes to the happiness of people. It acts as an escape from the everyday drudgery of life. According to psychologist Michael Caulfield “Sport is a force and power for good. It is the glue of society that binds schools, villages, cities, nations even. It matters more than we think and we should not belittle its impact.” However, in view of the protests of the pro-war people, eventually, a Footballers’ battalion was established in December, 1914 which consisted of, you guessed it, professional footballers only. Incredibly, this battalion did extremely well in battle.
One of the first people to join the infantry under this battalion was a man who history has all but forgotten: Walter Tull. Tull was born in Kent, England, and was of Afro-Caribbean descent. He was one of England's first professional black players and the first black officer in the British army. He was praised for his leadership and gallantry while in battle, but unfortunately he was killed in action in March 1918, mere months away from the end of the war. Regardless, this is an incredible story of black excellence. Merely existing as a person of colour, or a member of a minority community, be it African, Indian, or Asian, in the 19th century in a country that valued the whiteness of skin over the content of character could not have been easy. Keeping in mind that racism is still largely rampant even today makes the story of Walter Tull in the 1900s even more admirable and praiseworthy.
However, this wasn’t the only feel-good story that football during the first world war provided us with. Another event that is bound to make you feel all warm and happy inside is what is today known as the “Christmas Truce”. This story happened on December 25, 1914, on Christmas day, when an unofficial truce was in place. Apparently, British and German soldiers laid down their arms for a short while and played a game of football amongst themselves. There was no sense of hostility between the two sides, and it was a match enjoyed equally by both sides. While many historians have questioned the truthfulness of this story, men who were actually serving there and took part in the match confirm it to be true. While many have criticized this story claiming it “romanticizes the horrors of war”, others believe quite the opposite.
Martin Heather, head of education at the Premier League told CNN "It's not about glorifying the horrors of war, far from it. It's about fantastic acts of humanity amongst such horror. Being able to use the Christmas truce element of the First World War is really important. It gives some really key messages around reconciliation, friendship and respect.”
I agree completely. I think instances like this prove why football is not ‘just a game’. It is an emotion that everyone can feel collectively and that draws them together. Stories like these show how it can unite people from all over the world. On a football pitch, everyone is equal, irrespective of race, politics or religion and that is why we love the beautiful game after all, isn’t it?
Quote taken from https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2020/mar/24/when-football-played-world-war-one-north-london-derby