The Christmas Truce Tournament: Ypres, Belgium
Having been involved with the Englandfans football team since 2007 I was lucky enough to be invited along with 9 other regulars from the Supporters Club to play in the Christmas Truce Tournament in Ypres Belgium. The tournament was part of a weekend of activities to mark the 100th year anniversary of the Christmas Truce and was to be played on a grass pitch in Messines, Flanders – where the truce happened one hundred years ago.
There have been concerted effort throughout the football community to remember the Christmas Truce including a dedicated website, the #footballremembers hashtag, an advert from Sainsbury’s, a video from UEFA and a prominent mention in the Queens Speech.
I will never forget the first time that I played for the Englandfans football team – the sense of pride putting on an England kit and actually representing my country. Being invited to manage the England fans team in the tournament was an honour and I can only thank the FA enough for giving the team and myself this amazing opportunity – paying for our travel, food and accommodation throughout the weekend. An extra special thanks goes to Harpreet Grewal (head of the England Supporters Club) for all her work and support of the fans team since Mark Perryman started the initiative in 2005. The Belgium FA also did a fantastic job in hosting the tournament and particularly Lieven Der Kinderen who organised the whole weekend and went out of his way to make all the teams feel welcome.
The weekend started on Thursday evening with a trip to a football complex which had been paid for by the Premier League. We set the scene for the weekend by watching the film Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) which gave us an idea of the conditions both sets of soldiers faced in the trenches of WWI. Whilst the Christmas Truce stands out in history as a great act of humanity against the backdrop of war, the film also left me with the impression that the bleak conditions also helped in bringing both sides together, allowing a moment of respite to attend the wounded and bury the dead.
Watching the film is a reminder of how grateful we should be to those who fought on our behalf. The #footballremembers campaign highlights how football brings people together and also is a great reminder that we shouldn’t take freedom for granted – it seems only yesterday that we received such great hospitality from the Ukrainian fans; playing a fans match in both in Donetsk during Euro 2012 and last year when we played at Kiev University during the World Cup Qualifying campaign. It is crazy how much can change in a short space of time and two years after hosting one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, our friends in Ukraine are now living in a war zone.
The Tournament itself was comprised of eight team – two groups of four. England were paired with Belgium, N.Ireland and Germany. Wales were in a group with Scotland and France and the Republic of Ireland. Our team was made up of 8 regulars who have played recently in Estonia, Switzerland and at the World Cup in Brazil. The grass pitch looked in decent condition to start with and for our first outing against Northern Ireland we passed the ball really well. Within five minutes we were 2-0 up – scoring two of the goals of the tournament – both were well worked passing moves which were finished off by Lee Pendrey and Craig Tullis respectively. With the rain pouring down and wind sweeping across the pitch England were caught napping at the beginning of the second half as N.Ireland, who had plenty of pace in the side, cut through our defence and quickly made it 2-2. As the pitch cut up in the second half, England looked a bit leggy and in the last minute the Irish made it 3-2 to deservedly take all three points after a great comeback.
Our next game against Belgium was another close affair with the teams going in 1-1 at half time. However, it was Belgium who took the points, capitalising on two quick breaks and applying neat finishes to make it 3-1 at full-time. England were out and the dream was over for another 100 years!
At this point after four games on our pitch the lads were completely caked in mud (apart from Craig who had two goals but yet to make a tackle!) and we were happy to break for lunch where we were treated to a meal and a short speech from the head of the Belgium FA. In the afternoon we headed out to face a strong German team who were made up from the German FA. Strong, technical and athletic (exactly what you would expect from any German team) England did well to keep the score down to 3-0 as Germany progressed through as group winners with N.Ireland in second place.
Despite three loses the lads couldn’t have put more effort in and the tournament saw some really good games of football, even as the pitches deteriorated throughout the day. At some points in the tournament the weather was pretty terrible and managing the team on the sidelines there were times when it was pretty damn cold. It is worth remembering that 100 years ago, the English lads that played football on this field didn’t have a warm coach waiting to take them back to a 4-star hotel at the end of the game. It was the French who went on the win the tournament, beating Germany and then Scotland in the final. In a nice touch, all the teams received bronze medals, with no trophy being awarded to the winners.
In the evening after the tournament we attended the The Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate which takes place every night at 8pm. The gate is a war memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres area during WWI but the whereabouts of their graves are unknown. Aside from being an impressive monument it was staggering to see how many names are engraved onto the huge arches. The Scottish team contributed to the ceremony with their manager playing the bagpipes and two of our tournaments teams laid wreaths during the ceremony. After the ceremony, the good spirit of the tournament continued long into the night as all the teams enjoyed several beers together. On the Saturday the English players with their counterparts visited a number of Christmas Truce locations in Comines-Warneton (Plugstreet) and Armentieres and experienced a reenactment of the truce.
On behalf of the team and myself I would like to again thank the Belgium FA for arranging such a memorable weekend – what a fantastic way to commemorate one of the most remarkable stories of the war. I’m sure our teams will meet again at future fan-led initiatives.
A selection of photos from the tournament are available on the Christmas Truce Gallery page. Please contact me if you would like a full set of photos from the weekend.