The Washington Post

In Nor­mandy, free­dom, soccer find their match

- BY STEVEN GOFF United States of America · France · Bayeux · Laos · Ramstein-Miesenbach · Rammstein · Germany · Germany national football team · West Virginia · Virginia · Caen · Netherlands · Ebay · North America · France national football team · Richmond · Europe · European Union · Belgium · Kansas · Normandy, MO · Stade · Ramstein Air Base · International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement · Belgium national football team · Leavenworth, Indiana · United States Disciplinary Barracks

Seventy-five years later, on tree-lined grounds at the edge of this Lower Nor­mandy vil­lage, a World War II jeep passed through gates framed by U.S. and French flags and wheeled into the cen­ter circle of a no­tice­ably sloped soccer field.

And just like that day in July 1944, when Amer­i­can ser­vice­men and lo­cal am­a­teurs raised money and spir­its, the play­ers gath­ered around the olive-drab ve­hi­cle and tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended ath­letic com­pe­ti­tion to mix for a greater cause.

And as their pre­de­ces­sors had done six weeks af­ter D-Day, when a great war swung and a coun­try was lib­er­ated, the play­ers in Satur­day’s com­mem­o­ra­tive match drank cham­pagne and posed for pho­tos be­fore re­sum­ing play.

Yoann “Coco” Tapin, coach of the lo­cal squad, AS Pointe Co­tentin, said, “It is a way to keep his­tory alive.”

This past week, across France’s north­ern coast, vis­i­tors and dig­ni­taries toured bat­tle-scarred beaches, ob­served cer­e­monies and saluted the fallen at Colleville-sur-Mer and Bayeux as part of the June 6 re­mem­brance.

There also were small-scale gath­er­ings, such as this one, on a penin­sula west of the Al­lies’ fa­mous landings. Here, on a day of

bril­liant sun­shine and strong gusts, a few hun­dred as­sem­bled at Stade de la Masse, a com­plex with a per­ma­nent struc­ture hous­ing con­ces­sions be­neath a few dozen cov­ered seats. Ev­ery­one else lined rail­ings fram­ing the field.

They came to watch their tro­phy-win­ning am­a­teur side play a team from Ram­stein Air Base. The Amer­i­cans al­most did not make it, but af­ter of­fi­cial transporta­tion fell through, play­ers on preap­proved leave used pri­vate ve­hi­cles to tra­verse the 500 miles from Ger­many.

“We were ab­so­lutely not go­ing to miss out,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Lake, a West Vir­ginia na­tive and coach of a team that formed about a year ago. “The fact we can do the things we do now be­cause of what hap­pened here is hum­bling. I could see it in our play­ers’ faces. One of our play­ers had bor­der­line tears in his eyes and said [to the or­ga­niz­ers], ‘Thank you for let­ting us be a part of this.’ ”

The orig­i­nal game July 22, 1944, fea­tured a lo­cal squad against U.S. ser­vice­men who had helped end the Nazis’ four-year oc­cu­pa­tion. An on-site col­lec­tion gath­ered 1,643 francs to ben­e­fit those in war-shat­tered Caen, 70 miles to the south­east. At half­time Satur­day, vol­un­teers made the rounds with old mil­i­tary hel­mets, seek­ing cash to ben­e­fit the Red Cross.

Dur­ing the pregame fes­tiv­i­ties, youth play­ers held U.S. and French flags while wear­ing Tshirts spell­ing out “Lib­erté” as the na­tional an­thems played over muf­fled speak­ers. The play­ers sported old-style jerseys with laces at the up­per chest, the French in blue and the Amer­i­cans in white.

One area was con­verted into an ex­hibit called “Le Foot Pen­dant Le Guerre” — foot­ball dur­ing the war. Of note: Lo­cal play­ers had de­clined to play against the Ger­mans.

In a pregame speech, Mayor Daniel De­nis said: “We are here to re­mem­ber the Amer­i­can sol­diers land­ing on the beach to re­store our dig­nity and free­dom . . . . This game is very im­por­tant for our lo­cal his­tory.”

Or­ga­niz­ers had iden­ti­fied four liv­ing peo­ple who at­tended the 1944 match. One re­turned Satur­day: Jacques Mouchel, who will turn 89 this year. At 11, he was com­ing home from school one day in 1940 when he saw Ger­mans in mo­tor­cy­cles with side­cars.

Two Nazi of­fi­cers lived in his fam­ily’s house, he said. Dur­ing bomb­ing raids, his par­ents and sib­lings hud­dled in the stur­di­est spot: the liv­ing-room fire­place.

Af­ter D-Day, the pri­mary bat­tle in the area was for con­trol of Mau­per­tus Air­port, which the Ger­mans had seized, then ceded to the U.S. Army. Amid short­ages and suf­fer­ing, the soccer match was “the first mo­ment peo­ple were happy again,” Mouchel said. His un­cle, Rene Clot, had cap­tained the lo­cal squad.

Mouchel went on to be­come mayor of neigh­bor­ing Theville for 20 years. His barn, out­side the only home he has ever lived in, is dec­o­rated with shoes worn by horses that the Ger­mans had rid­den.

The 1944 match might have faded from mem­ory if not for the ar­rival of a Dutch­man more than a decade ago. Jan Milders had gone fish­ing with a friend on the west side of the Co­tentin Penin­sula. He liked the area so much, he de­cided to move there. He found a farm­house dat­ing from the 16th cen­tury and be­gan restoring it. He and his wife, Olivia, live there full-time.

A former am­a­teur player in the Nether­lands, Milders, now 56, asked AS Pointe Co­tentin whether he could stay fit by train­ing with the team. He did so and later joined a team of older play­ers.

While vis­it­ing the club’s of­fices, he no­ticed framed ar­ti­cles from a wartime pub­li­ca­tion, “Voir,” chron­i­cling the 1944 match. He pur­chased a copy of the mag­a­zine on eBay and be­gan deeper re­search. His­to­ri­ans in North Amer­ica helped uncover ad­di­tional de­tails.

“Ev­ery­one in town was proud of the match,” he said, “but no one ever thought of cel­e­brat­ing it.”

In 2009, on the 65th an­niver­sary of D-Day, Milders and town of­fi­cials or­ga­nized the first memo­rial match, pit­ting the lo­cals against U.S. ser­vice­men.

Milders tracked down Tom “Gin­ger” Neil, a re­tired Bri­tish wing com­man­der who had helped or­ga­nize the 1944 match. Neil was un­able to at­tend in 2009, but in a let­ter to Milders, he wrote: “On the ap­pointed day, the French team turned out look­ing very smart and ef­fi­cient whilst my Amer­i­can col­leagues looked more like pan­tomime clowns . . . . As a foot­ball match, the game was a dis­as­ter. As an event in the fur­ther­ance of good re­la­tions, the day was a re­sound­ing suc­cess.”

Of­fi­cially, the French won that meet­ing, 4-1. Unof­fi­cially, the mar­gin was much greater.

In 2009, the Amer­i­cans were vic­to­ri­ous. On Satur­day, AS Pointe Con­tentin rolled, 7-3. The loud­est sup­port for the U.S. squad came from two D-Day tourists from Rich­mond who had seen a flier that Milders had posted in a restau­rant re­stroom in seaside Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue.

Most of the U.S. play­ers had com­peted in high school and for youth clubs be­fore en­ter­ing the mil­i­tary. This month, the squad will rep­re­sent Ram­stein at a Eu­rope-wide tour­na­ment in­volv­ing U.S. armed forces.

Or­ga­niz­ers here ar­ranged for the Ram­stein del­e­ga­tion to stay in mo­bile units at a nearby camp­ground for two nights. On Sun­day, the team par­tic­i­pated in a lo­cal an­nual tour­na­ment be­fore em­bark­ing on the long trek home.

The ros­ter in­cludes Markus Maier, a 32-year-old Ger­man who works full-time at Ram­stein. Play­ing for an Amer­i­can team cel­e­brat­ing a mil­i­tary vic­tory over Ger­many, he said: “We are now a new gen­er­a­tion, and Ger­many has changed. The at­mos­phere here be­tween the Ger­mans and the French and the Amer­i­cans shows how the world has changed.”

Team cap­tain Ni­cholas Whet­stone, 26, be­gan play­ing soccer at age 3 as part of a mil­i­tary fam­ily sta­tioned in Bel­gium. He played high school soccer in Leav­en­worth, Kan. In do­ing re­search about the 1944 match, he said he was sur­prised “Amer­ica was even play­ing soccer back then. Now be­ing here and be­ing part of his­tory is pretty unique and pretty awe­some.”

At half­time, the play­ers gath­ered around the jeep. As in 1944, a brown ball sat atop five cham­pagne bot­tles. The cap­tains toasted in front of the cam­eras.

For Milders, an il­lus­tra­tor by trade, the an­niver­sary match cul­mi­nated his dream of cel­e­brat­ing sport­ing and cul­tural his­tory in his adop­tive home.

“It’s very much for the youth, who know noth­ing about some of the his­tory,” he said. “It’s some­thing to open their eyes and to show D-Day wasn’t only about the beaches. Things hap­pened here, too. And no one should ever for­get what hap­pened.”

 ??  ?? Jacques Mouchel, here re­view­ing pic­tures, is one of four liv­ing peo­ple who at­tended the 1944 match. He will turn 89 this year.
Jacques Mouchel, here re­view­ing pic­tures, is one of four liv­ing peo­ple who at­tended the 1944 match. He will turn 89 this year.
 ?? PHO­TOS BY LAU­RENCE GEAI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? Play­ers from a lo­cal French am­a­teur team, left, and an Amer­i­can squad from Ram­stein Air Base in Ger­many pause for a half­time toast.
PHO­TOS BY LAU­RENCE GEAI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST Play­ers from a lo­cal French am­a­teur team, left, and an Amer­i­can squad from Ram­stein Air Base in Ger­many pause for a half­time toast.

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