English football during World War II showed how sport can heal and unify during times of crisis

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Laurens: Finishing 19/20 season will lead to 'absolute mess' (1:09)

Julien Laurens thinks this Premier League season should be abandoned so future schedules are not affected. (1:09)

It's no wonder that football leagues across Europe are getting more serious about trying to resume the 2019-20 season behind closed doors. The coronavirus pandemic is the first time in history that virtually all European professional football (except the Belarussian league) has closed down. While researching my book "Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Soccer in Europe During the Second World War," I discovered that the ball rolled on even during both world wars.

If the game's closure continues, we may discover the importance of soccer to many fans' happiness. How essential is the sport -- not just watching games, but following the hourly news -- as a ritual of everyday life?

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When World War I broke out in 1914, the English Football Association offered to abandon soccer and hand over clubs' stadiums for the government to use for whatever purposes it chose. But the War Office said that was not necessary, so the clubs blithely played on. This upset many pro-war types, who were outraged that young men were having fun when they should have been dying on the battlefields in France.

An underlying source of tension at the time concerned the idea that football was the sport of the British working class. The country's middle and upper classes used football's continuation to chastise the workers for their supposed lack of patriotism. Some newspapers refused to publish match results, and The Times published a letter on Sept. 8, 1914, from the anti-alcohol campaigner Frederick Charrington to the king, saying the game's continuance during the fighting was a disgrace. Charrington often mocked wartime footballers as effeminate cowards. Later that season, when he rose to make a speech on military recruitment at halftime at a game at Craven Cottage, he was dragged away by two Fulham officials even though the club had granted him permission to speak.

Nationalists harassed soccer until the 1915-1916 season, when the FA curtailed the game and a draft was introduced. In January 1916, single men ages 18 to 40 were called up, and by June married men were too. But even after that, local competitions -- between professional clubs based in the same region -- were played throughout the war.

The French Coupe de France, the national cup, was actually held for the first time in the 1917-18 season, although the country was then the war's main battleground. (Between 1914 and 1918, 3.5 million men died on the Western Front, which ran through much of northern and eastern France as well as Belgium.) The competition, meant to help unite France, was named after the football official Charles Simon, who was killed in battle in 1915. The first final was played in Paris on May 5, 1918, in the early stages of the Great Flu -- the previous great global pandemic, which killed perhaps 50 million worldwide. One wonders how many spectators at the final caught the illness while in the stands. The Coupe de France competition was played again in 1918-19, as the pandemic peaked.

The last time English football closed down as drastically as it has in 2020 was on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. The FA suspended all forms of football just three matches into the season, but the government said it wanted recreation to continue where possible. So, within days of banning the sport, the FA reversed track. Regional leagues and friendly matches were permitted, though crowds could at first be no larger than 8,000 people. The restriction seemed unnecessary: hardly anyone came to watch these pointless early wartime games.

Mass Observation, one of the world's first research institutions that asked ordinary people about everyday life, discovered that interest in sport persisted. In December 1939, 49% of those polled by Mass Observation read sports news more closely than of the war, compared to 30% who read war news more closely. Mass Observation concluded: "People find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport."

It was becoming obvious that football was a cheap way to keep the working classes happy. Mass Observation's report said: "Sports like soccer have an absolute major effect on the morale of the people, and one Saturday afternoon of League matches could probably do more to affect people's spirits than the recent £50,000 government poster campaign urging cheerfulness, even if it were repeated six times over and six times better, as it easily could be."

British football soon picked up again and regional wartime football acquired a jokey character. Players hitchhiking to a match from a distant barracks would sometimes arrive only after kick-off, or not at all, and bold fans in the crowd would volunteer to take their place so that they could say forever afterward that they had played for Manchester United. (United played on through the war even after a German bomb hit Old Trafford on March 11, 1941, forcing them to move in with Manchester City. Similarly, a bomb on Arsenal's North Bank left the club sharing White Hart Lane with Spurs.)

A lighter, more entertaining form of the sport ensued. Players showed off tricks, knowing that results hardly mattered in the various contrived regional cups and leagues and constant friendlies. Average goals per game doubled, from three in the last pre-war season to six in the first months of war. The game also became friendlier: The traditional post-match handshake between opposing players probably dates from World War II.

By spring 1940, British football was booming again.

Late that May, as the German Army appeared to have trapped the British Expeditionary Force near Dunkirk; as Harold Nicholson, parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Information, said that shortly "the Germans may land thousands of men in Britain" and the War Cabinet debated making peace with Hitler, football carried on. At this time, Huddersfield were busy making a nine-hour bus trip to London for the War Cup. Then, while British soldiers were being rescued from Dunkirk by the armada of little boats, Chelsea vs. West Ham drew a crowd of 32,797 in London. The Daily Mail reported after the fall of France in June: "The people were stunned by the news just after the first race at Wolverhampton yesterday but, of course, carried on and presumably the meeting today will go through, if only as a gesture of stoutness." (The crucial phrase in this sentence is "of course.")

The British authorities did nothing to discourage soccer in World War II. They weren't worried about dodgers this time, as the draft had been introduced, and in any case almost all soldiers were just hanging around their barracks in Britain. The war was going to last years and if working men could be given a treat on Saturday afternoons at little expense, why stop it? Most people agreed. Mass Observation couldn't find a single peacetime fan who thought football should stop in wartime.

Ultimately, many of the prohibitions that characterized the British war barely touched soccer. Crowds numbering tens of thousands were allowed to gather in football grounds during the "Blitz," the nightly German bombing of London and certain other cities in 1940-41. Teams travelled long distances to matches; official posters urged "don't travel unless it is absolutely necessary" and while petrol was being imported from the U.S. by convoys that were often sunk by German U-boats.

While researching my book, I went to Preston to interview the club's greatest-ever player, Tom Finney. In 1941, he'd played for the Preston team that held Arsenal in the War Cup final at Wembley, then beat them in the replay at Blackburn. When I said it must have been strange playing a final in bombed-out London in the middle of a world war, the famously amiable Finney agreed that it had been. But then he said, "I mean, I wasn't all that interested in the war when I was playing. I was only 18. And the main concern was to go down and beat them, you know. And to hold them to a draw in London was really quite an achievement. . . . I wasn't really all that interested in the [war] -- I mean, other than the fact that we wanted England to win the war."

Finney spent much of the rest of the war playing top-level army football in Egypt, where he was stationed. I asked if he had returned home a better player. "Oh, absolutely, yes," he said. "I was more or less a seasoned player when I came back." That War Cup turned out to be the only trophy he ever won, partly because he always remained loyal to his hometown club. He scored 30 goals in 76 games for England, was twice named the Football Writers' Player of the Year, and died in 2014 at age 81.

German wartime football was even less restricted than the English game. On Sunday June 22, 1941, the day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the decisive act of the entire conflict, 90,000 spectators watched the German league final in Berlin. What were they thinking? At least they saw some goals. Rapid Vienna of Austria -- which had been annexed to the Third Reich by Hitler -- beat Schalke 4-3.

In fact, German football continued right up to the bitter end. On April 22, 1945, with the Allies virtually at the gates of the city, Bayern Munich beat local rivals 1860 Munich in a friendly. By then, football in England was fully restored.

On May 26, 1945, Manchester United and Bolton met in the League North Cup final. "The entertainment began fully an hour before kick-off," reported the Manchester Guardian, "the most arresting item being a display of energy by a one-legged man in a red singlet and white shorts who insisted on hopping around the field as a mark that United 'could do it on one leg' so to speak."

In fact, Bolton triumphed, winning 1-0 at home and then getting a 2-2 draw in the second leg at United's temporary home of Maine Road. Bolton went on to beat the southern winners Chelsea in the all-England final.

In much of occupied western Europe, football didn't merely survive the war; it actively boomed during it. In the Netherlands in 1940, the year of the German invasion, a little over 4 million tickets to sporting events were sold. In 1943, the figure exceeded 8 million. The mania for soccer astonished contemporaries. Before a crucial game between the Amsterdam club De Volewijckers and Heerenveen on Whit Monday of 1944, Volewijckers director Ph. K. Corsten wrote: "Certain foodstuffs are hard to obtain. However, people don't go to the Beemster [an agricultural region] for themselves, but solely with the intention of exchanging the vegetables and potatoes they obtain for . . . match tickets."

Dutch amateur sports clubs couldn't cope with the flood of new members. During the war, the Dutch read more books and attended more plays, films, concerts, and probably church services than before, but no other form of entertainment grew as quickly as sport. What else was there to do?

Today's bereft fans will know the feeling. People have a craving for weekly football. Some may even need it.