Tuesday 04 December 2012
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(Laurence Binyon 1869-1943)
Players from Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion's Under-12 sides had a weekend they will never forget when they took part in the Premier League’s second Christmas Truce international youth tournament at Ypres.
The youngsters joined teams from Belgium, Germany and France in the annual youth development competition to honour the sacrifice made by previous generations of footballers in the First World War.
Not only did the weekend give some of the most promising U12 players in Britain the opportunity to test and develop their skills against some of the best in Europe but it also provided a memorable educational and cultural experience in line with the principles of the Premier League's new Youth Development System.
"It was an opportunity to really bring home to the boys what it must have been like"
"Right from day one we were really keen that not only were we going to make our players the best but we wanted to make them good, well-rounded individuals," the Premier League's Head of Education and Welfare Martyn Heather told premierleague.com.
"Lionel Messi said recently that being the best player in the world was not important to him but being a good person was. I used that quote over the weekend with the boys and I suppose that’s the sort of philosophy we are trying to embed into our young players as we go along."
The event was also hailed by Androulla Vassiliou, the EU Commissioner for Culture, Education and Sport, who said: "I fully support the philosophy underpinning the Christmas Truce Tournament: bringing together the most promising young football players from England, Germany, France and Belgium, and giving them a chance to measure themselves against the best players in Europe, is an impressive event in itself.
"The fact that the tournament takes place in Flanders' fields, where these young players' forebears staged that small miracle that was the Christmas Truce among the horrors of almost a century ago, will make this playful yet poignant experience an unforgettable one."
The West Brom and Manchester United teams arrived on Friday November 30 and after visiting the Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery and touring Ypres Museum, the players attended the Christmas Truce site, where on 24 December 1914, an unofficial truce took place in the trenches around Ypres which ended up with reports of a football match being played in No Man’s Land.
"The trip to the site was very poignant," said Heather. "It was an opportunity to really bring home to the boys what it must have been like.
"Seeing the cross there, the footballs that have been placed there, just seeing the area, is the best lesson you can give someone to take them and relive what the experience was really like. There is no substitute for that real-life experience."
They joined two of the competing teams, Anderlecht and Beerschot, at the Last Post Ceremony at the Ypres Menin Gate Memorial, which commemorates the 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient of the First World War.
The players laid wreaths at the Memorial as part of the ceremony while there was a special moment when the West Brom players found the name of Harold Bache, a former Baggies player who died at Ypres.
"The youngsters approached the Menin Gate event very respectfully," said Heather. "It was a very moving ceremony. Three boys from each team took up the wreath and we laid a Premier League wreath as well.
"The boys were excellent and credit must go to the clubs because they have done a lot of work with the boys, they gave them some background to the event so they weren’t just going somewhere and not knowing what they were going to do.
"I am sure it will be something that they remember for ever. Teaching them respect is a core part of education whether you are in football or not. It is important for our young footballers to start to understand how important that is."
As well as the actual football competition on the Saturday and the Sunday, there was also a formal dinner on the Saturday night with all eight teams, coaches as well as dignitaries from the UK Government and the town of Ypres.
"If we are going to be as good or better as the rest of the world, then we have got to expose our young players to those situations"
The idea was to recreate the spirit of the Christmas Truce and during the dinner the players exchanged gifts with each other just as the troops did in 1914.
The event included a presentation from a player from each team, speeches from the likes of Deputy UK Ambassador Katrina Johnson and Paul Breyne, the Commissioner-General in charge of the Belgian federal coordination of ceremonies for the commemoration of the First World War, while actors dressed as German and English soldiers re-enacted scenes from the Christmas Truce.
"The tables had a mixture of boys from each country and we deliberately didn't put any staff on those tables because wanted to boys to interact," said Heather. "And during the dinner they all got up and suddenly there was this mass of people swapping presents. It was great. Watching them interact, without being able to speak the language was fantastic."
As for the tournament itself, Borussia Moenchengladbach were crowned champions after beating Club Brugge in the final.
"The standard of the football was very good," said Heather. "It was a good lesson for our boys. Their whole experience was travelling away and preparing and the tournament fitted in with what we are trying to do in our philosophy about playing best against best.
"The coaches were great, too. Obviously, they would have liked to win it but it was more about the education in terms of the game rather than going out to win the tournament. The only way we are going to make our players better is by putting them in situations like that where they are challenged.
"If we are going to be as good or better as the rest of the world, then we have got to expose our young players to those situations."
The UK Government recently announced that sport will play an important part in the centenary commemorations of the First World War and the Premier League is guaranteeing its commitment by ensuring that the Christmas Truce Tournament will run until at least 2014.