During Christmas week of 1914, it really was all quiet on the Western Front. About 100,000 British and German soldiers were in trenches near Flanders in Belgium, so close they could hear each other singing Christmas songs. Soon, the soldiers were yelling across the field exchanging gossip and joining in the singing. Eventually, they met in the middle, exchanged gifts and food and buried their dead.
A ball was found, teams were formed and soccer (or football) matches started.
On the 100th anniversary of World War I and the Christmas Truce, players from England and Germany met once again on the soccer field to remember that unique time in history and to look forward to more international matches by celebrating the awarding of a yet-to-be-named Major League Soccer team, now known as MLS Atlanta.
Leading the ceremonies at Emory University were MLS Atlanta owner Arthur Blank; Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, British consul general in Atlanta and Thomas Wülfing, deputy consul general for the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Atlanta. MLS Atlanta President Darren Eales took to the field for Team Britain.
Mr. Eales, a former professional soccer player who came to his new position from a management position at the British club Tottenham Hotspur, led the British team, despite being under the weather.
“He is sick,” confirmed Mr. Blank. “But as a coach and a player he is going to play and give 1,000 percent. It is nothing less than what he would expect from his team and from himself as a player and manager.”
The event was part of an international celebration called “Football Remembers Week” bringing together representatives from the Premier League, Football Association and the British Council to educate and engage fans about the Christmas Truce. More than 20 countries are participating; Atlanta is one of four U.S. cities.
In addition to remembering the war, there was a sense of excitement about Atlanta’s future soccer team, slated to begin in 2017 at the new downtown stadium most people know will house the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, which Mr. Blank also owns.
“There is just so much more of a presence of soccer in the United States, even in the Southeast where college football is so dominant,” said Mr. Pilmore-Bedford, the British consul general.
Mr. Blank believes the new team and the new stadium will both contribute to the sport’s popularity locally and enhance the city’s international reputation.
“It certainly puts Atlanta on the center stage, and soccer is a sport that millions of people across the world love. To have a professional team of this caliber brings a new recognition to Atlanta and will have an enormous economic impact, but as important as the economic impact and increased internationalism is the fact that it’s a great competition and exciting to play and watch.”
Both diplomats agree that soccer is increasing its foothold in this country and Atlanta.
“The World Cup was an event here,” said Mr. Pilmore-Bedford. “I would hear people talking about it in the elevators and in restaurants.”
Mr. Wülfing attributes the game’s increased popularity to the “globalization of Americans” who are traveling abroad more and being exposed to the game. More foreigners from Latin America, Europe, Africa and beyond are also moving to the U.S.
“Soccer is more popular than it has ever been, and it does bring people together,” Mr. Wülfing said. “The more people are involved in something, the more they realize they have things in common. Soccer can bring people together.”
It certainly did in Flanders 100 years ago, where warriors showed their patriotism by fighting in close quarters against fellow Europeans that they traded with in peacetime.
“There really hadn’t been a general war since Napoleon, and the economies of Germany and England were very intertwined. At that time one could leave Britain and work all over Europe without a passport or document until they reached Russia, just like today,” Mr. Pilmore-Bedford said. “But it also was a very intimate scene where they were literally a stone’s throw away from each other; nothing like the drones of today.”
Mr. Wülfing said World War I was the result of a “complete lack of understanding [on the part of the countries’ leaders] of the situation and plunged everyone into an abyss of stupidity. The soldiers on all sides were enthusiastic and wanted to be heroes and fight for their countries. They thought it would be over by Christmas.”
But as the war dragged on and soldiers from both sides were “stuck in trenches” the atmosphere quickly changed into “deep disillusionment, and when Christmas approached the local commanders simply took the position to stop the carnage for a short period of time and return to having human feelings that war takes away,” Mr. Wülfing said.
In the 2014 football friendly, the Brits prevailed 4-1 and received the First World Centenary Cup, presented by Mr. Blank. About 100 people attended the match, many of them youth soccer players. Irish Consul General Paul Gleeson, the dean of the Atlanta Consular Corps, was also in attendance.