Sport's capacity to reach across the bitterest divide is exemplified by the events of Christmas Day 95 years ago in the killing fields in Belgium, where British and German soldiers all too briefly laid down their arms and played football instead of fighting.
The last of the combatants from the First World War died this year, but the power of ideas lives on. By the time the centenary arrives in 2014, the site of the most famous game in No Man's Land, at Messines, south-east of Ypres, may be overlooked by a "Flanders peace field and truce stadium" as part of an educational complex where young people could stay and play.
Among the peace campaigners working with the local Belgian authorities are English sculptor Andrew Edwards and Irish writer Don Mullan. Their admiration for Gordon Banks brought them together – Edwards' statue of the great goalkeeper graces the foyer of Stoke's Britannia Stadium while Mullan penned an acclaimed biography – but they also shared a belief in sport's potential to help resolve conflict.
Their research has convinced them a game did take place, or more probably, several games along the Western Front. At Messines, where a young Adolf Hitler was billeted, contemporary sources suggest it started with a Christmas carol being sung in the German trenches. The refrain drifted across No Man's Land to Comines, where Winston Churchill, by astonishing coincidence, was among the British soldiers. Slowly, "Fritz" and "Tommy" emerged to fraternise and exchange handshakes, schnapps, chocolate and cigarettes. Then a ball was produced.
"That's not as far-fetched as it sounds," Edwards said. "There's plenty of evidence that they had balls with them, and there are accounts of young soldiers being so terrified when they went over the top that they ran out dribbling footballs."
The most likely match pitted the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders, the Germans reportedly winning 3-2. Other versions have the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers playing against the Hun – 200-man kickabouts, no referee, no score and, until their superiors called them in and the slaughter began again, no ill will. It has been portrayed as a mythical event, and yet letters from the front to the press made it clear something happened.
The peace field and truce stadium are more than a pipe dream. Mullan has been in talks to involve the United Nations. He and Edwards envisage a US-style collegiate stadium with players emerging as if from underground like troops from the trenches.
Integral to the scheme would be a 22ft-high statue by Edwards titled Peace Keepers, linking Banks (in his gravity-defying save from Pele in 1970) to his boyhood idol, former German prisoner of war and Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann.
The sculptor, who is working on a commission from Louisville for a Muhammad Ali statue and Derby for a Clough-Taylor monument, would also produce one of Walter Tull, a Barbadian who braved racial hatred to play for Spurs and Northampton before a German bullet killed him. And he hopes to acquire the cast of his Pride Park statue of Steve Bloomer, the Derby player who was football's first superstar, before going to coach in Berlin in 1914 and being incarcerated as a POW.
Edwards, Mullan and their allies in Messines propose a World Youth Tournament there in 2014. It may be named in memory of John Condon, an Irish soldier who, aged 14, is thought to have been the conflict's youngest fatality.
In the meantime, a Christmas Truce Carol Festival is planned for next year. "Music drew them out of the trenches," said Mullan. "In the same way, sport can heal the hurts."Reuse content