Members of the football team of the 42th Macedonian division of the Yugoslav national-liberation army, pictured in football uniforms during the final operations for the liberation of Yugoslavia, May 1945
Due to its competitive nature, the struggle for success and glory in football is compared with wars, often popularly perceived as “the continuation of war by other means“. At the same time, wars and conflicts played a major role in the promotion and diffusion of the game in many corners around the world. Such is the case with the colonization processes when European empires (Great Britain, France etc.) used their military power to enforce their rule around the world. Football in Africa was first introduced by British troops stationed in Rhodesia and South Africa. In Asia, European colonial possessions and their settlements were the main centers for spreading the game where soldiers and colonists created their teams and played with each other. The same is true in India where the inhabitants first learned about the game from the colonial army members and their missionary schools. Football, unlike some other western practices, obviously was an acceptable option for the local population in most parts of these continents.
Football has been an important tool for the appeasement and relaxation of the people during their harsh times, severe struggles and military conflicts. One famous story from the First World War talks about the “game on a Christmas Truce“ of 1914, when the English and German soldiers spontaneously came out of the trenches and played football with each other, forgetting for a moment the all horrors of the war. Similar episodes presenting British soldiers playing football on the battlefields at the time of the ceasefire could be found in the trenches of the “Macedonian front“, too. Sources claim that when the British played football, the Bulgarian artillery, which they were within reach, did not act on the enemy’s positions. But, as soon as Bulgarians noticed that the game was turning into some form of military training they started firing warning grenades. Thus, the message was clear, sporting activities are allowed, but the military are not.
Zoom in on the Balkans
Some beginnings of football in the Balkans are also related with the military staffs that were often present in the region during the turbulent times of the early 20th century. In modern North Macedonia,the first football game for which there is a document, dates back to Easter 1919 (April 20), when a local club from Skopje played against the selection of British expeditionary forces that were stationed in the city at the time. From the Serbian language of the preserved poster of the match (photo) we can learn some basic information regarding the time and place of the event and the ticket price. Other interesting details involve another British organization, the Christian man’s youth community (Y.M.C.A). The representatives of this humanitarian organization were in charge of the equipment for the footballers as well as for the post game party. The English forces were also charged for maintaining the order along the field and for the music and whole ambience of the spectators. The referee was an English soldier and a priest who alongside with the whistle wore a cross on his chest, too.
In the context of World War II
The ball didn’t stop rolling either during World War II. Football was played everywhere where minimum conditions existed for it. There were regular national championships in some states, international matches, pure propaganda games etc. Football was played even at the frontlines and in concentration camps. Most people have already heard the story about the infamous “Death Match“, that occurred in Nazi occupied Kiev in August 1942, involving Ukrainian players and a German military team, which later received some mythical elements.
It was a surprise to me to find in the National Museum of the Republic of North Macedonia in Skopje that among the hundreds of photos of Macedonian fighters that took part in the battles on “the Syrmian Front“ (the final operations for the liberation of Yugoslavia in early 1945), there are two photos of fighters wearing football uniforms. It is simply to explain that soldiers, but also the civilians, faced with the constant fear of deaths and destruction, hunger, diseases, loneliness and all this which is an inevitable part of all wars and fighting, they desperately needed some moments of rest and relaxation. And, among other things, football was able to provide it to them.
Turning back to the beginning of this article. Football in a competitive mode, to many (maybe) looks like another form of war. But as an ordinary game and practice it always had the power to unite people, to boost their morale and give hope and satisfaction even in the most difficult times and circumstances.
Find out more
The research and education initiative Football and War contains many insightful articles. The Imperial War Museums also has visually stunning galleries around the theme of football and war. At Football Makes History, we would like to know and find out more about stories of football and war beyond the English language and sources. Zdravko’s article offers a glimpse.
Football’s history can be traced along troops stations and frontlines.