It is coming up to 100 years since the most mythical of football matches ever played over Christmas. Legend has it that on Christmas Day, 1914, soldiers from both sides of the trenches in northern France during World War One got together in no-man’s land for an impromptu kickabout.
The truce began the night before when the Germans started to sing “Silent Night”, with the English responding with a rendition of “Good King Wenceslas”. The following day, after they shouted messages at each other for a bit, the soldiers laid down their weapons and ventured out, somebody produced a football, and a game was on. As one of the fusiliers later recalled, it was “more of a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half-an-hour, and no-one was keeping score.”
The idea of football being such an inspirer of goodwill, a peacemaker of sorts, makes you wonder whether it would not be so bad for this story to be recounted in a few Premier League dressing rooms this Christmas.
For two clubs in particular, who have been embroiled in allegations of racism over the past few weeks – matters that rumble on as Luis Suarez considers challenging his punishment from the Football Association for an exchange with Patrice Evra and John Terry awaits prosecution for alleged abuse of Anton Ferdinand – it is a sensitive time. It clearly means a great deal to both Liverpool and Chelsea to have such influential players under considerable pressure and scrutiny.
By extension, the clubs themselves, and their managers and players, are also under the microsope. The issue has become complex and controversial. How to best handle the fact that one of their group stands accused of such an unacceptable misdeed? In the PR stakes, Liverpool scored an own goal when Kenny Dalglish and all the players wore Suarez t-shirts before their recent match at Wigan. Their intention was to show solidarity with one of their own, which in itself is understandable, but critics lined up to ask whether such action was effectively condoning racism. The former Manchester United defender, Paul McGrath, summed up the feelings of many when he described the t-shirt stunt as “shameful”.
Dalglish is unrepentant, though, stressing how Suarez has been touched by the support. "He’s been quite emotional and very grateful," said Liverpool’s manager. “I don’t think it is ever a disappointment when the people you work for give you their undivided support and I think that is the least he deserves."
This is a challenging scenario for all concerned. English football is so partisan that clubs are always expected to automatically stand by their men, almost whatever the wrongdoing. So it is that anyone associated with Liverpool or Chelsea feels obliged to offer their backing, and those on the side of the alleged victims, from Manchester United and QPR, have to take the opposite view. Opinions are predictably polarized. All in all, it does not reflect brilliantly on the English game.
The day after such a furor, Chelsea took center stage. Perhaps mindful of the censure Liverpool created for themselves with their t-shirts, they merely tried to behave in a business-as-usual manner, even though all eyes honed in on Terry to see if he showed any emotional reaction to the fact the Crown Prosecution Service has set a date for a February trial of his case.
He responded as he always does when he is the center of attention, by acting out his valiant captain’s role with gusto. Andre Villas-Boas even went so far as to suggest that this kind of adversity brings the best out of Terry. “Since the situation he has improved. He has grown in terms of performance,” said the Chelsea coach. “He’s a reference point for this team. It shows his character and strength and personality – his effort for the collective is extraordinary."
As far as both Liverpool and Chelsea are concerned, the wider debates about the rights and wrongs of the two cases, and about how the clubs behave with this cloud above them, is one thing. But the prospect of losing an important player for a significant period of time weighs heavily.
For Dalglish, the prospect of missing Suarez for eight games, which is the current length of the ban imposed by the Football Association, would obviously be a massive blow as the Uruguayan is by far Liverpool’s most dangerous attacking force. For Villas-Boas, any absence for Terry would put additional strain on Chelsea’s defensive resources. They are already openly on the hunt for a center back, having accepted a transfer request from the Brazilian, Alex.
What should English football want for Christmas? A quick and definitive resolution to these cases, accepted by all concerned, and a desire to keep the game free from such unpleasantness would be a welcome gift.