Friday 02 December 2011
Manchester United's youngsters are off to Belgium to take part in the Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament in Ypres.
The unique football festival will bring together youth teams from Belgium, France and Germany. They will be commemorating the often told World War I story of soldiers playing football on Christmas Day in 1914.
The tournament takes place on 3/4 December 2011 at the home of Belgian club KVK Ieper. Manchester United's Under-12s will be joined by Racing Genk, RC Lens and Borussia Dortmund, who will play in a round-robin tournament before a final and third-place play-off on Sunday.
"Football has a wonderful power to build bridges"
- Brian McClair
The tournament has two key objectives: education and player development. World War I is often part of the curriculum for Year Seven children in England and so this will be a unique and valuable learning experience. The boys will be recognising the role of professional football players in World War I and commemorate their sacrifice.
The Manchester United team will be involved in a number of cultural activities over the weekend. On Friday afternoon they will visit the site of the Christmas Truce just outside Ypres, with the boys leaving footballs, as is the tradition.
In the evening they will be guests of the Mayor of Ypres for a reception at the Town Hall, before heading to Menin Gate Memorial and the Last Post ceremony. The boys will lay a commemorative wreath for the 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I.
Brian McClair, former Manchester United player and now Director of their acclaimed Youth Academy, believes that the weekend will help show a different side of football.
"I think it's important to understand that football has a wonderful power to build bridges," said McClair. "Certainly the visit to the Menin Gate will be very thought provoking for them and will be a point in their life where they will be able to look back and say, 'I'm glad I did that'.
"I'm sure it will be humbling, but it will also be of great benefit. They are going to be given the time to pause and reflect what happens when others go and fight for a bigger cause. And it's also going to be interesting for them to see how football transcended all of that for a short while."
"This is a great initiative from the Premier League"
- Hugh Robertson
McClair acknowledged the benefit the tournament has had already on their education.
"The boys have been preparing for the trip with a lot of enthusiasm," he added. "We have a background learning pack for them, they know that Manchester United players were involved in the Great War and some of the boys have been tracing back family relatives who were there.
"So it’s been very productive off the field, they’ve been doing a lot of studying looking at their own backgrounds."
The tournament has also been welcomed by the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, Hugh Robertson, who himself is a former Major in the Household Cavalry, The Life Guards.
"The Christmas Truce International Youth Tournament will help to teach the importance of our history and the sacrifices made during the First World War by our servicemen and women," he said.
"It also promotes cultural acceptance. This is a great initiative from the Premier League and I wish Manchester United’s team the best of luck in the tournament."
In line with the principles outlined in the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), this Christmas Truce Tournament is an opportunity for the most promising young players under the age of 12 to further their development by challenging themselves against the best players in Europe. That is something that McClair is looking forward to his young charges experiencing.
He said: "You always want to test and challenge yourself and the Christmas Truce Tournament will do that. We are fortunate that all our boys have the opportunity to go to at least one overseas tournament a year when they are with us, and this is an added extra.
"It's an exciting tournament to be part of and we've been heavily involved in the planning of both the football and the cultural side because we want the boys to get as much out of it as possible.
"It's a great chance for them to learn as footballers. They'll be coming up against different football cultures and see how they approach a game. We strongly believe that when our young players get out on to a football pitch there are problems to be solved and we want them to try and solve them for themselves. If they start with that mind-set now then it will benefit them in the long term.
"There are also cultural differences in interpretations of the rules of the game by players, coaches and referees. We hope that one day these kids are going to be involved in European competition, and in European competition that's when the rules are adhered to very strictly."
Earlier this year the Premier League was praised for the role it plays in developing greater understanding. Ofsted – who rated the education work of Premier League Academies as 'Outstanding' – highlight that clubs encourage open minds that accept and welcome other cultures.
The Christmas Truce Tournament is designed to foster the development of closer relationships between European clubs. And, as McClair notes, it is also a great excuse to just have fun playing football.
"Our fundamental reason for being as an Academy is that we want the kids to have fun," he added. "For all the time that they are involved with us we want them to enjoy the experience of playing football. That’s what this entire trip is all about. Kids are kids and it's the same when they go on holiday, they’ll play and chat with anyone from any nation.
"That’s particularly the case with the football this weekend; they'll meet their counterparts from Germany, France and Belgium and have fun with one and another. Elements of it will be thought-provoking but it should be a smashing weekend and all of us involved will be richer for it."