In England, It's Football Before Family

The entire continent of Europe - the entire Christian world, in fact - takes a break from soccer to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Even the Jewish state's soccer players are on vacation from mid-December to just after the start of the New Year.

England, however, not only fails to take a winter break; it even increases the number of games played over the holiday period. Why is this the case? When did the tradition of Christmas soccer matches start, and is it not time for the British soccer authorities to realize that a winter break is beneficial for players ahead of the arduous second half of the season?

The answers depend on who one asks. Many players and coaches - particularly those who hail from outside the British Isles - have come out against the lack of a winter break in the British league schedule. Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, told an interviewer that he once rejected a move to an English club because "I want to spend the holidays with my family, not playing four games in the space of eight days."

While current coaches, such as Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, are firmly in favor of a winter break, the more fanatical fans feel very differently. Why, they want to know, do they have to wait for Boxing Day for their festive soccer fare, rather than being able to enjoy a match on Christmas Day itself, as used to be the case? In fact, for many years, it was traditional for teams to play on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day, often against local rivals.

The Christmas Day derby matches were huge crowd-pullers. In fact, for teams not involved in the race for the championship, the highest attendances of the season would almost always be for the Christmas derbies. Many times, Chelsea would host West London rivals Fulham on Christmas Day at Stamford Bridge, and the next day, the return match would be played at Craven Cottage. And that is just one example.

The origin of the Christmas fixtures goes back many centuries - long before soccer became a regulated sport with a fixed set of rules. At Christmas and Easter, which were the only holidays that existed, the male population used to take part in a mass event played on a pitch that could stretch from one end of the village to the other. The teams were one half of the community against the other half, and the ball was an inflated pig's liver.

After the English Civil War in the 17th century and the rise to power of the Puritans, Christmas was outlawed and public gatherings, including the mass soccer game, were banned. In a study published several years ago, leading British historian Prof. Bernard Capp of Warwick University claimed that the people used soccer as their main form of civil disobedience against the new Puritan regime.

In December 1647, for example, when the Puritan mayor of Coventry announced that soccer was being outlawed, hundreds of people took to the streets carrying improvised soccer balls in protest, as a symbol of their love for the tradition. In 1660, 13 people were put on trial in Scarborough for disobeying the ban on Christmas soccer games.

"In the Puritan Revolution, football became a flashpoint for social and political tensions between Puritan authorities and their enemies," wrote Capp. "Football originated as a seasonal sport, often played between rival villages on Shrove Tuesday or Easter, so during traditional times of seasonal festivities, which were then prohibited, such as during Christmas or before Lent, differences flared."

Crazy schedule

When the English league became an organized entity, the tradition of Christmas games was maintained and became even more deeply entrenched. Usually, there were two full rounds of matches - on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. This schedule, which now seems almost insane, continued until the 1950s. The last full round of matches on Christmas Day was played in 1957 (in Scotland, they continued until 1976), and by the mid-1960s, a decision had been made not to play any more games on Christmas Day - much to the chagrin of many supporters.

Players, coaches, referees and soccer officials wanted to be with their families over the holiday; there is no public transport on Christmas Day; and, according to British law, a player cannot be forced to play on Christmas unless contractually obligated to do so. Two matches in the space of 24 hours was considered too much, as was a schedule that forced teams to play four games in eight days. In recent years, this has been cut to three games in the same period.

The Puritans of the 17th century were opposed to Christmas as well as to soccer. Today's conservatives now say that they miss their Christmas Day matches. The compromise - three games over a week and a half, starting the day after Christmas - is a welcome tradition. The performance of English teams in European competition offers no proof for the claim that the lack of a winter break harms players. After all, Christmas and soccer have been interlinked for centuries.

In the words of Prof. Capp, "football has been a passion in Britain for hundreds of years, as has the tradition of Christmas and football."