It was Christmas Day, 1914, five months into World War I. German and British soldiers had engaged in exhausting and bloody battles across the Western Front, especially in Belgium. Hopes that the conflict would be “over by Christmas” quickly receded as demoralized soldiers settled into the routine of a war that would drag on for another four years.
But on this Christmas Day one hundred years ago, there was a brief respite, a spark of hope in the midst of the fighting. On Christmas, British and German soldiers on some battlefields in Belgium spent the night singing carols across the front lines. When day broke, they spontaneously emerged from their trenches for an informal truce, ignoring warnings from their officers about fraternizing with the enemy. They exchanged gifts, took pictures, and had kickabouts — informal soccer games. The Christmas Football Truce is a popular holiday story across Europe, a brief moment when hope and fraternity triumphed over war.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce, British consulates in 25 countries around the world organized soccer matches in Tunisia, Japan, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Cyprus, and the United States, among others. Their German counterparts sometimes joined in the games and programs, which varied across the world. In Lebanon, British Consulate staff faced off against professional soccer players from the One Lebanon team, and Ambassador Tom Fletcher scored Britain’s only goal in what was eventually a 4-1 loss. In other countries, such as Ghana, British consulates organized football games for children from broken homes or other charitable organizations.
On Monday, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould oversaw a tournament of more than 200 Arab and Jewish students from the Haifa region. The event commemorated the Christmas truce’s message of tolerance and acted as a kick-off tournament for the Equalizer after-school assistance program. Equalizer combines tutoring and learning assistance with soccer teams to help 1,700 kids in 115 schools across Israel.
“Just for a short moment, the [WWI soldiers] put all their differences to one side to find a spark of shared humanity,” Gould said as the kids took the field. “Jewish, Arab, and Druze are coming together to play football, which breaks down barriers between communities. It is a really lovely way to remember what happened 100 years ago.”
In Israel, the event was especially poignant given the Gaza war of the past summer and the ongoing violence and terror attacks, which have sown fear and mistrust between the various communities.
A handful of professional soccer players from Maccabbi Haifa and Tel Aviv joined the tournament, echoing the messages of tolerance and peace through sport.
“In the current situation, I think sport can unite anew the different populations in Israel,” said Mahran Radi, an Arab Israeli who plays centerfield with Maccabbi Tel Aviv. “There is no easy or correct way to do this, but soccer is the most popular thing in the world.”
Deep-seated racism in soccer has been an ongoing problem, especially among rabidly conservative supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem team. Extremist fans torched part of the team’s practice facilities after the team signed two Muslim players from Chechnya back in 2013.
‘Right now, we’re not just in a crisis situation – we’re in a total and utter collapse’
“Racism isn’t in soccer, racism is in Israeli society,” explained Zouheir Bahloul, a well-known Arab Israeli soccer announcer on Israel Radio, who also volunteers with the Equalizer program. “Right now, we’re not just in a crisis situation — we are in a total and utter collapse. Here, we have an island of equality, and we need to develop projects like this.” He added that the initiative focused on children’s teams because of the opportunity they offered to impact the next generation.
“I came to play soccer, because on the field it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, we play soccer together,” said a breathless Oren Rafaeliov, 11, who just subbed out to the sidelines for a rest as his team from Tirat Carmel played a match. “I learned that it doesn’t matter if someone is Arab or not, you need to give them respect,” added his teammate, goalkeeper Liran Agronov, 10.
“I came because I wanted to play and have fun and make new friends, and meet people from other schools,” said an 11-year-old Druze named Siraj Nassar al-Din, the goalkeeper for the opposing team from Dalat al Karmel. “I’m really happy to be here because we get to meet new people and also they help us in school,” added Said Fahmoni, a ten-year-old Muslim also from Dalat al Karmel. “We’re all in this together, holding hands.”
While the Christmas truce did not happen at every battlefield, it happened at quite a few across Belgium and France, according to a BBC documentary. The informal truce incensed British officers, who were worried that caroling with the enemy would be bad for morale, since the British soldiers were expected to kill the German soldiers, not sing with them. After the Christmas truce, there were no other informal truces, and the war lasted another four years, ending on November 11, 1918.
“We don’t want to emulate everything from WWI,” Gould said on Monday. “It was an odd moment, very unusual, that didn’t last. But you can draw a small lesson from this, to build friendships across dividing lines.”
Maccabbi Haifa player Dekel Keinan, who is Jewish, said he was not surprised that soccer was used in Europe 100 years ago between soldiers at war, and also today to encourage dialogue between Jews and Arabs. “Soccer, then and now, is a really good way to communicate,” he said. “It’s an international language.”