The Premier League’s strong and unique bond with the Belgian city of Ypres was underlined on Friday with the opening of a new 3G pitch at the venue of the annual Premier League Christmas Truce International tournament.
Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore officially opened the new facility at the KVK Westhoek club, hosts of the Christmas Truce event since 2011. The pitch will benefit not only the club but also schools, other clubs and community projects in the wider community. The League’s gift to Ypres commemorates the centenary of one of the most extraordinary acts in war history, on Christmas Day in 1914, when soldiers ceased fighting and exchanged gifts, sang songs and played football in no man’s land.
“We thought we would do something extra special and leave a living statue”
“You can build a statue or a memorial but we thought we would do something extra special and leave a living statue, which is a marvellous modern pitch that we have donated to the city and the community of Ypres,” Scudamore said. “Our teams will be coming back but most importantly the local community will get to use this pitch.
“Sport can transcend many things as we know from Christmas in 1914 that despite the hostilities, people were able for a moment, to put those to one side, to play football and to use sport to share something really meaningful.”
Dominique Dehaene, Alderman of Ypres City Council, stressed the importance of the symbolic value of the pitch. The League wants the facility to be available to other relevant football and sporting organisations throughout Europe to come and enjoy it in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, especially for young people visiting the First World War battlefields
“Commemorating what happened here 100 years is a very powerful way of keeping this memory alive,” Dehaene said. “We have a lot of commemorations here in Ypres and we appreciate all of them but this is something that will last for ever. It’s a very special way of showing that what happened here 100 years ago still lives on.
The new facility will give the Westhoek and the local area more opportunity to play sport.
“In the past we have problems with the drainage but now everything is solved, every day our teams are playing here,” Westhoek’s chairman of youth, Martin Willems, said. “We have 27 youth teams and it’s a privilege that we can use this wonderful pitch.
“The relationship between the club and the Premier League is very strong and we are very proud to be a part of such a noble project.”
All 20 Premier League clubs visit Ypres
To mark the opening of the pitch, the Under-12 teams from all 20 Premier League clubs travelled to Ypres for the first time for the Premier League Christmas Truce National Tournament, normally held in England.
The three-day event decides the two English teams who will compete in the International tournament, which takes each December and this year will feature teams from Germany, France, Belgium, Austria and Scotland.
For the 20 Premier League clubs, the tournament has the players spending one day competing on the pitch and the other taking part in various educational and historical events and visits.
“We have 27 youth teams and it’s a privilege that we can use this wonderful pitch”
Scudamore joined the Leicester City team on their education day as they visited the Old Cheese Factory in Passchendaele, where after lunch they met an actor who demonstrated the equipment, clothing and weaponry used by a British soldier in the First World War as well as teaching the group about what it was like to be recruited into the army.
The group then went to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, where Scudamore and the Leicester players laid a wreath by the name on the wall of Leicester Fosse player Robert Messer, who lost his life in Flanders at the very end of the conflict.
“It was quite unbelievable seeing these young boys taking it so seriously yet having fun at the same time,” Scudamore said. “They were asking questions, getting engaged and were genuinely interested.
“It is an unbelievable experience for these players. They clearly came with some knowledge before but they have clearly got an awful lot more now.
“Visiting Tyne Cot was very moving. You look at the names and they are names that are so familiar. You start to think about who these people were. So many gave so many sacrifices and it’s impossible not to be moved.”
Five poets from the Poetry Society are also with the teams over the weekend, conducting workshops with them, and the thoughts of the boys will be passed to another poet, who has been commissioned to write a new poem about the Christmas Truce.
On Friday evening, the teams attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, where Scudamore and a player from each club laid a wreath on behalf of their club and the Premier League as a mark of respect to the 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient in the First World War and whose graves are unknown.
The tournament and the pitch launch are part of “Football Remembers”, a collaboration between the Premier League, The FA, the Football League and the British Council, with the aim of engaging football fans about what took place on Christmas Day 1914 in Flanders, Belgium.
Leicester City have released a documentary “The Story of Leicester City and the First World War”. Watch a trailer here
To keep up to date with the Christmas Truce National Qualifying Tournament, follow #footballremembers