Return to Mediocrity

As I know many of my followers/readers are not hardcore sports fans, let me give some perspective on Oct. 10th, 2017. Headlines across America might have read…

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Unfathomable? Impossible? Maybe those headlines give the American non-sports or general sports fan a glimpse of what has been going on with our United States Soccer Federation and our men’s national team the last fifteen years or more.

In November 2016 I wrote a post (A Litmus Test) about the USMNT fall and firing of one our winningest Head Coaches, Jürgen Klinsmann. In my post a year ago I pointed out what I thought were three central pillars that dictate a FIFA member’s national team success, mediocrity, or failure. If a national footballing federation like our USSF wants to find a dynasty-proven premier model to follow, it doesn’t have to look too hard at all. In fact, it is or should be a no-brainer.

Ever since the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, football, or futebol, or soccer as Americans call it, has by all records been the world’s greatest most popular, most watched sporting event in all of modern history. Around the entire globe crazed, obsessed fans can tell you in remarkable detail specific plays, passes, saves, and goals by who and where for any number of futebol matches! And the records, the stats, the teams, the players, the articles, and video-highlights are easily found anywhere. Here are the three greatest national futebolling dynasties, top to bottom, followed by consistent strong contenders. These include FIFA Federation dynasties, in parenthesis, which are just as competitive as World Cups:

  1. Brazil — 5 world championships and the only nation to have participated in all twenty World Cup tournaments (8 Federation Championships)
  2. Germany — 4 world championships (3 Federation Championships)
  3. Italy — 4 world championships (1 Federation Championship)
  4. Argentina — 2 world championships (14 Federation Championships)
  5. Uruguay — 2 world championships (15 Federation Championships)
  6. Spain — 1 world championship (3 Federation Championships)
  7. France — 1 world championship (2 Federation Championships)
  8. England — 1 world championship

If a new or burgeoning national futebol/soccer governing body — with an equal or better sports fan-base to grow — wants to see how Brazil, Germany, Italy and a host of several other dominating countries play the game at the highest levels, with weaker economies than the U.S., and do it year after year, tournament after tournament, producing world-class players and coaches generation after generation, above are 4-5 nations to mimic with everything it takes to be a juggernaut dynasty for 88-years and 88 more.

matt-besler-usa

A defeated Matt Besler post-game

Yet, one very tiny Caribbean nation eliminated the U.S. Mens National Soccer Team from its 8th consecutive FIFA World Cup tournament. More embarrassing than the loss Oct. 10th to tiny Trinidad & Tobago is the fact that CONCACAF is by far the easiest federation to qualify from to play in the quadrennial World Cup tournament out of all FIFA federations. Given the U.S. made it to the Quarter-finals in 2002, this begs the serious question, What direction has U.S. soccer headed in?

Having played at a very high-level of soccer myself most of my adult life — collegiately, professionally, and semi-pro — on the continents of Europe, South America, Africa, and of course North America, under several coaches and playing styles, with and against some excellent players and several world-class players, for an American I feel I have a well-based, fair standpoint (since 1975) to assess our nation’s soccer/futebol progress. However, this time I won’t. I am going to defer to someone who has much higher experience, much higher qualifications to tell America and the USSF like it is and won’t sugar-coat it. He repeats much of what I’ve been advocating and screaming since 1990.

One of Five American World-Class Soccer Players:  Claudio Reyna

Reyna-on-US-SoccerOf the handful of American boys that the rest of the futebolling world would label world-class, capable of playing several prolonged seasons in Europe’s elite leagues and teams in the starting-11, Claudio Reyna is a shoe-in. Real quick, he played from 1994-2008 at the highest levels with Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City before retiring with the New York Red Bulls. Had he not suffered so many leg injuries, most critics say Claudio would’ve held almost all American soccer records for a long time eclipsed only by Clint Dempsey or the rising Christian Pulisic. I feel what Claudio has to say about Oct. 10th and the state of U.S. soccer today carries a whole lot of weight. Here are his words from an interview with soccer website Goal.com:

REYNA:
“Our approach and our behavior to the sport here — to coaching, to everything, is just wrong. We’re far too arrogant. We’re far too obnoxious. We are egotistical, having never won anything or done anything, and that’s not the case around the world. You travel to Spain, Argentina, Germany and you run into coaches and sporting directors and there’s a humility about their work that doesn’t exist here, and that’s, for me seeing it, is to me a big concern.

When you have a disappointment like last week, and we’ve had past disappointments as well, and we’ll have disappointments in the future, but what we need to understand that it’s for me behavioral. We have coaches who think they’re better than they are. Across the board, we just think we do things better than we really do. I mean in every way. Whether it’s broadcasting, or media, coaching, we’re just not as far along as we tell ourselves we are. We need a little honesty, and hopefully this brought it. I think it’s far too late. I think we’ve been asleep at the wheel for a little bit too long.”

For the key pivotal positions throughout the U.S. soccer culture, youth development, up to the USSF and USMNT since the 1970’s, anyone who is outside of soccer just doesn’t understand what Claudio is saying. Non-futebol leaders, administrators, coaches, presidents, corporate sponsors and fans (who ultimately pay for the product on the fields), bring with them this old guard USA mentality that America is the best at most everything!

REYNA:
“We have all these countries around the world we can learn from, and you go over there and you’re not going to see different training sessions. You’re going to see good games, and poor games, like in any league across the world.

But the one thing that we haven’t realized, I think, when we have our American soccer people go abroad to learn, I don’t think they see the behaviors of the people and how they coach in their day-to-day work. That’s the shake-up I hope people realize more than anything.

You go to a U-14 and U-15 coach in Spain, and they are 10 times more humble than a U-14 or U-15 coach in Connecticut, New Jersey or New York, who thinks they’re the next Pep Guardiola or Patrick Vieira.

Until we realize that — that we’re not as good as we think we are at all levels — then I think we’re going to continue being what we are, which is mediocre.”

Messi-Ronaldo

Spain’s La Liga dominates recent world-class club futebol

In my personal opinion and experience, Claudio is partly correct about European leagues and games. However, the reason the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Brasileiro Série A are the top leagues in the world are because of the product they have on the field and sidelines. The best players on the planet play in these five leagues and paying fans with paying sponsors want to watch excellent entertaining futebol of the highest levels. Bad games are few and far between in these leagues between the bottom-dwelling clubs.

Why is the MLS, America’s pro league, consider 2nd or 3rd Division by world standards? Reyna believes that though soccer has grown in popularity in the U.S., the quality has not improved or kept up with that growth.

REYNA:
“What I think has happened in the past 10 years is we’re confusing investment, expansion, growth, (U.S. Development Academy), and all these other things with progress. All these things have sort of created a feeling that we’re progressing, but I call it expanding, growth and more fans.

From the general growth side it’s happening, but are we really progressing? When I look around at certain levels I don’t see progress happening.

I remember the great Johan Cruyff would say something about Dutch football, or Franz Beckenbauer in Germany, and when other big players and coaches spoke out and were honest, it shook things up and make people ask, ‘How are we teaching the game to our youth? How are we playing the game? What’s the competition like?

We don’t have those kind of serious discussions here. We just seem to talk, but never really make any significant changes.”

And I would add here that because of an old guard mindset of sports egotism, like we had about Olympic basketball for so long, Americans falsely thought we could just create our own pro-soccer league here with a lot of American players and a few old retiring European or S. American has-beens and soon advance into the World Cup’s Quarter or Semi-finals. That was the American mentality after the 1994 FIFA World Cup here in the U.S. when we upset Colombia and especially after our performance in the 2002 World Cup.

REYNA:
[The old guard] “are sitting together and thinking about strategies and how we’re going to get better. We need a little humility and modesty at the table. Unfortunately, we have a little too much ‘Mr. I Know Everything’, ‘Mr. Arrogance’, ‘Mr. Obnoxious’, ‘Mr. Loud’, and when those get together nothing happens.”

This is who I believe Claudio is calling out, the American generation in key pivotal positions who did not grow up playing little league soccer, school soccer, and college soccer. At best, that old guard might have had their kids playing, but not at top-quality European or S. American influenced academies with the same foreign coaches. When one wants to learn all the in’s and out’s of a intricate complicated sport, you go and learn from the best in the world. That is what S. Americans did for basketball in the NBA and that’s what the rest of the world did for baseball in the MLB. What has the old guard and USSF done? Can it improve or change as necessary?

What does Claudio think about our retiring 30-year olds, current mid-20 year olds, and teenage soccer generations?

REYNA:
“There’s good players at every age group. There’s some very good players in this country. As supporters of these players, whether it’s coaches, sporting directors, team presidents, we need to continue to push ourselves to make sure they have the best environment to develop because the talent is here. One thing I’ll never say is we don’t have good players, because we do.”

Gabriele Marcotti, a European sports journalist-columnist and self-protested “outsider” to U.S. soccer, wrote a good 7-point piece for ESPN FC earlier this month that I think pin-points some chronic and festering problems. Check it out. His first four points are excellent. Back to Claudio…

REYNA:
“There’s a lot of positives despite the disappointing result that we had last week. I think we’re all embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as a former player that I have to go around and have people make fun of us, and get texts from my friends in Europe who remind me we’ll be on [vacation] next summer. I can laugh, but it hurts. It definitely hurts.”

I am right there with your pain Claudio. It does indeed hurt, particularly when the USMNT and USSF have no legitimate excuses for missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The first head that should immediately roll is President Sunil Gulati. This decline and disaster has happened on his watch.

As a personal closing opinion and note, without question, all of the USMNT greatest futebol achievements, greatest futebol players, and greatest futebol moments have come with, by and during eras when American players had prolonged experience or were playing in top foreign leagues. After at least five decades of soccer, what does that suggest about our youth development programs and domestic Major League Soccer?

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Uniting the World

Most coveted trophy in all of sports

There is an irrational sports mentality in America that the National Football League (NFL), or National Basketball Association (NBA), or Major League Baseball (MLB), and their televised “world championships” are the biggest spectacle in sporting events in the world.  This is strictly an American invention, however.  It does not exist anywhere except within the lower 48-states.  The reality is this:  the NFL, NBA, and MLB pale and pale greatly when put next to FIFA’s World Cup tournament and championship every four years.  But certainly don’t take my word for it.  Let’s look at these numbers.
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A London, UK-based media company called Initiative, Futures sport + entertainment, a firm that publishes reports and research on all and any sporting events, states “Soccer’s domination of global TV viewing is now complete.”  According to Initiative, in 2009 the NFL’s Super Bowl XLIII was knocked off its most-viewed-event-in-the-world perch.  This television topple has been coming since at least 2002, and immeasurably and arguably well before 2000.

Let’s start with the size of leagues or associations by the number of teams and their fans.  These will strictly be men’s sports.

 

Number of Teams and Confederations

In the NFL there are 32 teams that play for the Super Bowl Championship.  In the NBA there are 30 teams that play for the NBA Championship.  In MLB there are also 30 teams that play for the World Series Championship.  These three American professional sports have a total of 92 teams playing for three different championships.  Now let us examine FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

fifa_logoFor just over three years, 226 national teams all over the world (as of 2014) compete for inclusion into the opening group-play in the FIFA World Cup tournament held every four years.  That is over 7-times larger than the NFL and nearly 8-times larger than the NBA and MLB association and league respectively.  But this comparison isn’t quite accurate; it doesn’t portray the true size of professional soccer players and their pro teams in each of those 226 FIFA nations.

FIFA is comprised of six (6) futebol, or soccer associations, represented by individual continents.  The CAF (Confederation of African Football) comprises 54 national teams, each of those nations with professional leagues of teams/clubs totaling approximately 408 teams within those 54 nations; each team with an approximate roster of 22-25 players.  Additionally, the 408 teams are merely the Top professional teams in the continent’s Top Leagues.  There are typically lower 2nd and 3rd division leagues, or more, on each continent.

The next continental association, in alphabetical order, is the AFC (Asian Football Association) comprising 47 national teams.  Within the 47 member nations, there are approximately 248 clubs/teams playing in AFC’s Top professional leagues; again, with approximately 22-25 players per roster.  Once again, there are typically lower 2nd and 3rd division leagues as well.

UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) is the marquee FIFA association in the world, as well as the richest.  It comprises one of the two elite Top footballing associations of the world with 54 member nations.  Inside of the 54 nations consists approximately 871 Top professional teams/clubs with typically 4 to 5 lower divisions.  And remember from here on out, each club’s roster consists of a minimum 22-25 players!

It is worth noting that with each of these national teams and each of these local or regional club-teams within each nation comes a passionate loyal following of fans five to fifteen times larger than the club’s roster!  I dare you to try and do that math.

The next FIFA association continent is CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) with 45 member nations.  The United States is a member of this association.  Within these 45 nations are approximately 155 teams/clubs playing in their Top professional leagues.  And from here on out remember there are typically a minimum of 2 to 3 or more lower divisions.

Next is the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) comprising 16 member nations with approximately 30 teams/clubs competing in Top professional leagues within these 16 nations.

CONMEBOL (Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol), or commonly the South American Football Confederation, consists of 10 member nations.  This confederation is the world’s second elite association next to UEFA.  It has a staggering 1,931 teams/clubs competing in each nation’s Top professional leagues.

 

Rungrado_May_Day_StadiumAll in all, and if you were not tracking the total number of club teams within each nation in their Top professional leagues (i.e. not including all lower divisions), the approximate total of teams/clubs fielding players who dream about an individual chance to participate in the world’s ultimate sporting spectacle in their lifetime… conservatively it is approximately 3,643 teams/clubs dwindled down to 226 national teams, over a 3-year period, to play together for just two months, every four years.  If we multiply those 3,643 teams with their faithful fans, say 5-times the 25-man roster of the club (91, 075 pro players) multiplied by the average soccer stadium capacity of 40,000 spectators, that bare-bone minimum fan-base equals almost 146-million live spectators.  But this is a very conservative figure.  According to FIFA.com “Facts and Figures”, an estimated 715.1 million fans watched on TV the 2006 World Cup Championship final in Germany; 3.18 million attended the 64 matches of the tournament.  And these figures do not include various viewing-venues across the host nation.

The real scale of this sport during the World Cup tournament – not just by persons inside the stadiums but on television, viewing-venues, and now over the internet – is near incomprehensible in size, popularity, and economic revenues.  And it is taking place again this June 2014.

 

The Economics of World Soccer

In this day and age of sports, soccer is king of mega business:  a global industry with a wide spectrum of television contracts and lucrative merchandising deals which generate hundreds of billions of dollars annually.  A number of clubs around the world now rank among the highest earning wealthiest sports teams on Earth.  However, as quickly as revenues roll-in, they are paid right back out to multi-million dollar player contracts, signing fees and bonuses.

GSSS-2014-top-12ESPN Magazine recently reported (April 2014) the Top 25 highest-paid athletes in the world – their endorsements are not included.  Of the Top 5, three are soccer players:  Cristiano Ronaldo ($50.2M) of Real Madrid FC, Lionel Messi ($50.1M) FC Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ($35M) of Paris Saint-Germain.  According to Sportingintelligence’s Global Sports Salaries Survey (April 2014), Manchester City FC of the English Premier League, is the world’s best paid team paying out an average salary of $172,508 per week to its first-team players.  Of the world’s Top 5 highest-paying sports teams, Spanish La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona round out fourth and fifth at $161,373 per week and $158,397 per week respectively.  The average professional athlete contract is 5-years.  In this latest edition of the Global Sports Salaries Survey (GSSS), it provides a list of 100 teams paying out the most money per average first-team player over five years:

The eye-watering sums on offer in elite European football [i.e. Barcelona FC] and in the major sports leagues in America effectively mean that a single five-year deal should provide enough money to setup a player for life.  Real Madrid have the next highest five-year total:  $41M per player on average, followed by the Yankees ($39.7M), then Manchester City ($35M), and Chelsea FC ($34.3M).

The last table-graphic shown in the GSSS article (below image) is particularly enlightening for American sports fans.  It shows that of the Top 20 five-year earnings for first-team players of all major sports around the world, HALF of them (10) are soccer teams/clubs.  Of the remaining 10 sports, only five are NBA teams and four are MLB teams.  National Football League teams do not make the list at all until No. 93:  the Dallas Cowboys.

GSSS-2014-made-for-lifeThe primary reason soccer tops most team and player-salary lists is that almost ALL POSITIONS on the playing field are important (probably critical) for the organization to be successful and profitable.  Soccer is, as well as basketball and hockey, are true team sports.  In the sports of MLB and the NFL, that is not the case.  The pitcher or pitching staff and quarterback are the critical positions influencing or controlling most dynamics of the game.  Those players earn monumentally more money than their other teammates.  It is also the reason why the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL are 20 places higher than the first NFL team, the Cowboys.

Do these numbers explain why soccer unites more of the world than any other sport on the planet?  What about the emotion, the passion of its fans?

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The Fans

What does it mean when one asks the question, “What is the most popular sport in the world?”  Does it mean the sport most-watched, most-played, or perhaps the wealthiest based on revenue?  Yes to all three.  I have done the research and spent the time answering this question, and if you choose to search for the answer as well, you will find the majority of polls and surveys will all say the same thing:  soccer.

Why is soccer the king of all sports on the planet and has been for many decades?  The passion of its fans is certainly one reason.  If you’ve never been to a major soccer game in Europe or South America, among singing dancing fans, you are missing out on a life-time experience like no other.  Want a taste?

The wonderful atmosphere of top-flight soccer matches are finally growing in the United States.  When the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the World Cup in Brazil this summer, listen and watch how 40,000+ fans in Seattle, WA – some of the most excitable fans in the nation – celebrated the 3-year achievement:

But simply being amongst a mass of dancing singing humanity is only part of the experience.  Understanding what the world’s greatest players do on the field with that ball, as an 11-man team, explains why it is called and known all around the globe as “the beautiful game.”  Soccer is a worldwide language; the most popular language spoken in a multitude of dialects.  As a naïve outsider and at first glance, an American might think the world’s passion for soccer is overly simple, unimpressive.  One might write it off as a dull 90-minute game with an average score-line of 0-to-0 or 2-to-1 most games.  But that impression would be from a grossly uninformed unimaginative closed-mind.

The Players

Yes, the world’s love of the game is indeed simple:  the action is non-stop; the 22 players improvise tactics in the middle of a flowing game performing spectacular feats of athleticism and skills.  But the passion goes much deeper for more complex reasons.  The great Brazilian star Pelé describes the game as being so infused in many countries that over time the sport is not just a pastime, but has morphed into a reflection of national character.  With the diversity of global geographies and cultures come distinctive playing-styles.  These national styles have produced some of the most riveting, most brilliant moments in soccer history!  Take a look at these six clips, considered by many footballing fans as the greatest World Cup moments and goals:

World Cup Final 1970 – Brazil’s Carlos Alberto’s goal

World Cup Group-play 1970 – England’s Gordon Banks’ save vs. Pelé

World Cup 1982 – The heavily favored-to-win squad of Brazil:  “Ballet with the Ball – A Love Story

World Cup Qualifier 2001 – England’s goal frenzy vs. Germany

World Cup 2006 – The Tournament’s Best

World Cup 2010 – Top 10 Goals

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One of the most exquisite skills a world-class soccer player can master is the art of dribbling.  The game’s biggest stars have signature tricks and moves to beat their opponent.  In real time it is a blur, gone in one or two seconds.  But the amount of training and practice required to use them in the game is mind-boggling.  Watch these élite players from around the world showcase their best tricks and define why this game of soccer is so worshiped around the globe.

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The Nations

IC_jujuIn 1992 in the country of Ivory Coast in West Africa, the Ivorians were so determined to have their national team win the African Nations Cup that the government’s sports minister enlisted a battalion of fétisheurs – juju men – to place on the team a supernatural advantage against rival Ghana.  When the minister later broke promises of payment to the fétisheurs, they in turn placed a hex on the Ivorian team, which then went on a ten-year spell of losing results.  When the defense minister desperately sought to make amends with the witch doctors, offering cases of liquor and large money bags, the hex was lifted.  Almost immediately the team did a 180 and qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

In Spain, where soccer is so dramatic it is often described as theater, a Spanish novelist writes his obsession with the beautiful game this way:

Once you’ve fallen into the game, there is no getting out… [stats] will tell you almost nothing about the game itself.  The player who actually wins the game may be the one who moves into space at the opposite side of the field, drawing a defender, forcing a new configuration upon the defense and making virtually inevitable a goal that was before impossible, but no one – not even he – may be aware of this.  It’s all narrative, and thus subjective:  Each game is a story, a sequence of ambivalent metaphors, a personal revelation couched in the idiom of the faith.  No game I know of is so dependent upon such flowing intangibles as “pattern” and “rhythm” and “vision” and “understanding.”  Which may all be illusions.  And at the same time it is a very simple game:  like dreams, almost childlike.

z_bobanIn today’s Croatia, soccer is a form of group therapy which bore a new nation.  A match between Zagreb’s Dinamo and Belgrade’s Red Star in 1990 marked the beginning of Croatia’s war for independence.  After the opening whistle at kickoff, fans from both teams clashed in the stadium stands, as well as onto the field.  A Serb-dominated police force began beating Croatian spectators while allowing Serbian fans to run freely.  This ignited the already boiling-over tensions in what was then Yugoslavia.  Upon witnessing a Serb-policeman wail on a fallen Dinamo fan, midfielder Zvonimir Boban rushed and karate-kicked the officer (image above left), and later became a Croatian national hero of their independence movement.  In one of the biggest upsets in World Cup lore, Croatia beat powerhouse Germany in the 1998 World Cup Quarterfinals and then went on to win third place by beating an equally stacked Netherlands 2 – 1.  After the match, Croatians flooded the town squares and streets in adulation and song.  On television, many reporters interviewed grown men who couldn’t stop bawling.  Courtney Angela Brkic, a Croatian author, stated that “not since the declaration of independence, had so much unified celebration been seen.  Now no one could deny Croatia its place on the map.

brazil-soccer-fansIn Brazil, the only nation to have won the World Cup five times and the only national team to have appeared in all World Cup tournaments since its start in 1930, soccer is an ideology and state religion.  Nowhere in the world does a nation try so hard to play the game so beautifully as Brazilians.  And that is why Brazilian players are so loved around the world by so many fans and top leagues.  The Brazilian national team has never been ranked world-wide below No. 10, a record untouched by any other soccer nations.  Their fans do the Samba non-stop for ninety plus minutes as their players do indescribable tricks and feats between all ten of their team’s players.  It is why Brazil, on any continent, is always the beloved overdog of every World Cup.  They are the only favorite that is always a favorite.

This June 2014

If you cannot make it to games in Brazil this summer, the next best thing is to find a local pub or bar with an international flavor and history that will be televising the tournament.  I guarantee the place will be raucous and rocking with national team fans.  I always try to find a Brazilian restaurant-bar; the atmosphere is utterly electric, colorful, and beautiful.  I will most certainly support my U.S. National Team, but unfortunately their odds of advancing out of the early group stage are minimal against the exceptional likes of Portugal, Ghana, and Germany.  Nevertheless, the spectacle of the game will be phenomenal and the skills and creativity of the world’s best players on the world stage will be unparalleled.  Be a part of it.  Be united with the rest of the world for two memorable incredible months!

U.S. Soccer:  We Are Going to Brazil

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L’absurdité de la Guerre

WW1-NoMansLandIt was known as the war to end all wars.  In all the history of mankind the scale of destruction and death of World War I had never been seen or remotely imagined.  From all the major world powers fighting in 1914, an estimated 65 million men put their nation’s uniforms on and set off to the front-lines to obliterate their enemies.  In the end, more than 10 million men would be killed; 20 million would be maimed for life.  Thirty-million families lost husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, or the return of their permanently disfigured bodies and minds.

L’absurdité de la Guerre – The Absurdity of War

From the very first shots fired the war spun quickly out of control.  By the summer of 1914 European empires were realizing an era of unprecedented scientific and mechanized advancements as a result of the Victorian industrial revolution.  The killing efficiency of these new 19th century national armies  wiping out swaths of soldiers in a matter of minutes had never been seen on any battlefield at any time earlier.  Central Europe was literally a 600-square mile butcher’s block of human and animal limbs and carcasses scattered everywhere in pools of mud, blood, and disease.  The poet-novelist Robert Graves wrote:

“[the bodies] we could not get from the German [barbed]wire continued to swell…the color of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-gray, to red, to purple, to green, to black.”

The stench of death is unlike any odor known.  I know; I’ve smelt it.  Overlooking these unbelievable scenes one looses any remaining hope for humanity’s survival.  None of the warring leaders and monarchs had any conception of what killing-machines were being set in motion.  The fact that most of them thought the war would be ending by Christmas 1914, shows how arrogantly disillusioned they had become with their national status and power.  Too few thought the apocalypse had arrived but watched as masses of ordinary people and soldiers were lead to their deaths.

In some of the darkest hours however, there are some that rise above their circumstances.

In a letter to his brother Nickolai in 1886, Anton Chekhov – thought by most historians to be one of Russia’s greatest writers – described eight simple principles of human decency.

  1. Respect others as individuals, no more.
  2. Have more compassion for others beyond beggars or pets.
  3. Respect other’s property, even pay their debts.
  4. Do not be devious.  Fear lies as you fear fire.
  5. Do not solicit sympathy from others.
  6. Do not be vain, thinking you are above certain others.
  7. Value beauty and talent; nurture it, doing your part to grow it.
  8. Develop your aesthetic sensibilities, doing your part for the greater refinement of the whole.

The Christmas Truce of 1914Chekhov would conclude that any level of pomp and arrogance was only as noble as the least of your fellow man.  That was his standard of a true civilized human being and people.

On Christmas Eve December 24th, 1914 bitter enemies in opposite trenches of Europe’s Western Front despite the hatred their national leaders, families and military commanders felt toward their enemy, decided not to fight, but to sing.  The Germans lit candles and in beautiful harmony sang “Silent night…Holy night.”  So moved by their cheer, the British soldiers responded with carols of their own.  This goodwill inspired many soldiers on both sides to toss gifts of food over into their enemy trenches.  The German side applauded the British singing then the Brits cheered and applauded the Germans.  One miracle act of goodness led to another, then another.  By dawn Christmas Day, chivalry and kindness were as out of control as the war.  They even played a football match together around the large cannon-shell craters and wired obstacles.


I often understand the causes of war and killing:  it is the utter failure of peoples or their leaders to do everything humanly possible to resolve dispute, or it is merely the greed of egos and the ignorance of those who follow them.  In the end, in every single conflict throughout all of mankind’s history, the price of war and killing is too high and never completely measured for generations to come.  In certain obvious cases today it never ends.

xmastruce1914Yet on a small level, on an individual basis, when humans can step back and understand the person facing them on a personal level, not as a total stranger who is being led by a delusional greedy ego-maniac monarch or king, that spirit which Anton Chekhov speaks about can and will courageously step forward.  The real miracle of this 1914 Christmas between “enemies” was that a few good men did not bow to the fear of a firing-squad or court-marshal by their superiors.  Instead they recognized the moment was greater than themselves or their nations — as is almost always the case in any situation of dispute.  When people view strangers as anything other than another human being, a human being who also has parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters all with the same basic needs as you…the higher perspective, the higher road comes to focus.  What remains is the decision to take it.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a supreme act of humanity and goodwill by a group of courageous men in uniforms surrounded by the most despicable acts of nations.  Such a truce had never before taken place.  And for no apparent intelligent reasons, has never happened again.  Though I am not a Christian or a religious man during this time of year, I am the biggest fan-fanatic for humanity and the potential brilliance of the human spirit.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men and women.  Happy holidays everyone.

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