Sunday 25 December 2016, 09:06

Tales of footballing cheer for Christmas

At this magical time of year, when we give and receive with open hearts, the desire for all of us to come together and make the world a better place is particularly strong.

In promoting that spirit and the belief that small gestures can make a big difference, tells just a few of the tales in which football has played its part in helping to heal wounds, restore hope and bring joy, even in the most trying of circumstances.

The Christmas truce The First World War was fought mainly in the trenches of Belgium and northern France. And it was between those trenches, near the Belgian town of Ypres, that German and British soldiers came together to play one of the most celebrated of all football matches on a chilly Christmas Eve in 1914, only a few months after the conflict began.

The catalyst for the game was the lighting of candles in the German trenches and the sound of carols drifting across 'No man’s land' to the watching British. Cautiously at first, soldiers from both sides ventured out of their makeshift retreats. Meeting each other halfway across the battlefield, they began exchanging what few possessions they had and sharing their memories of home.

The fraternising took a sporting turn when the opposing soldiers decided to play a football match, with the Germans reportedly winning 2-1. Sadly, the unofficial ceasefire was short-lived, and no sooner was Christmas over than the war resumed, the hostilities only coming to an end nearly four years later. The powerful symbolism of that impromptu game has lasted for far longer, however.

Twenty years later, football and war would cross paths again in distant South America, where Bolivia and Paraguay were locked in a bloody territorial dispute. As the conflict grew on, the Paraguayan Red Cross decided to raise funds in support of the wounded on both sides.

Deciding that the massively popular sport of football was the best way of arousing interest in their cause, the organisation decided to form a team that would tour Argentina and Uruguay and persuade the watching public to make a donation. One of the members of that charity side was a young Paraguayan by the name of Arsenio Erico, who quickly attracted the attention of Argentina’s biggest clubs and went on to become the leading scorer in Argentinian football with 295 goals, a record that stands to this day.

Defying the odds Rudiger Bohm is one man who can testify to football’s power to turn despair into hope. A German skiing instructor, Bohm lost both his legs in a serious car crash in 1997. “Those were the first 27 years of your life,” a friend told him in the aftermath of the accident. “Now draw a line under them and start again.” Taking heed of his advice, Bohm learned to walk again and then took a football coaching course, where he met Marco Pezzaiuoli, the head youth coach at Karlsruher SC.

Amazed by his colleague’s desire to live life to the fullest, Pezzaiuoli decided to give him a job at the club. From 2010 to 2013, Bohm coached Thun’s U-21 team, guiding them at the 2011 and 2012 FIFA/Blue Stars Youth Cup. ** **Sticking together The terrible earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 triggered a massive response from the global footballing community, which did what it could to help the stricken country and its people. As the world and the media turned its attention to the catastrophe in the Far East, however, the spotlight inevitably moved away from other disaster-stricken parts of the world, Haiti among them.

Fortunately, there are some people who remain dedicated to the cause long after the reporters and TV cameras have gone. Bryane Heaberlin is one such example. The young USA goalkeeper saw the suffering caused by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti when her side took on the Caribbean islanders in the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 Championship.

After chatting with her opposite number and finding out that she had lost both her parents in the disaster, Heaberlin - who went on to win the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup - got to work and set up her own foundation to raise money for the Haitian girls, getting enough funds together to organise a training camp in the USA for the country’s U-20 women’s team.

'Many Hearts, One Goal' is the name she has given to her mission, which is still going strong and has the support of some of the biggest names in women’s football – just another illustration of the beautiful game’s ability to build bridges and unite people.

Solidarity amid tragedyThat ability was never more apparent than in November of this year when the world of football came together in the aftermath of the Chapecoense tragedy. The Brazilian club had been en route to the biggest game in their history - the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional - when their plane crashed, killing 71 people, including most of the team's players and management staff.

Yet, amid the desolation that inevitably followed, there was some comfort too, found in the overwhelming outpouring of support and sympathy from across the football world. Countless clubs, including many of Chapecoense's erstwhile rivals, offered to provide players, stage matches and provide financial support, while the likes of Ronaldinho and Juan Roman Riquelme pledged to come out of retirement to help.

These are only a few examples of the power football has to bring good. If you know of any others, click on ‘Add your comment’ and tell us about them.