World War I soccer truce is remembered in Kansas City

Legend has it, and historians largely concur, that just shy of a century ago, soccer trumped artillery on a wet, wintry field in war-torn Europe.

From trenches separated by a no man’s land that a decent footballer could kick across, the French and British came from one side and the Germans from the other for a soccer match somewhere in France or Belgium. It’s largely thought the visitors won 3-2.

So on Thursday, on makeshift mini-pitches on the far more peaceful lawn south of the National World War I Museum, teams faced off in the spirit of the holiday truce match that took place across the pond in 1914.

“It’s the first time I’ve played since high school,” said Thomas Murdick, 28.

He came on a sunny but still chilly morning with friends from Sporting Kansas City’s Cauldron cheering section.

For Murdick and his buddies, it was a chance to appreciate the simplicity of the game and mark the warm memory of a long-ago crossroads of history and sport. During World War I, soldiers from the warring sides set down their arms for a short time to play some soccer, swap gifts and sing. It’s said the Germans may have decorated Christmas trees.

Ninety-nine years later in Kansas City, Sporting Kansas City and the museum put on a three-on-three soccer tournament — 24 teams in two divisions facing off in 43 games — and a watch party of English Premier League games to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914.

The gathering was among the early events in a year of activity at the museum gearing up for the centennial of the war that introduced the world to trench warfare and modern artillery, to the military use of barbed wire and poison gas, and finally to the armored tank.

Much about the original truce game is hard to recover now, said Lora Vogt, the museum’s curator of education. It’s likely that the Germans did, in fact, win by a single goal because that’s the account that comes from British and French combatants.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she said, “that they would say they’d lost if they’d won.”

It must have been tough going. Men living in the filth of trenches likely skidded around in combat boots on a frozen or muddy field.

“It was,” Vogt said, “really cold and wet.”

It was also a short-lived tradition, she said. Generals would later put an end to the Christmas respite from war.

But others have celebrated the event since. The English Premier League doesn’t usually play on Thursdays. But all 20 teams faced off this Thursday as they typically do on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas when the upper classes traditionally presented gifts to working folk in England.

“It’s a big thing for soccer,” said Kurt Austin, the communications manager for Sporting Kansas City. “We want to be a part of that.”