Premiership doesn't stop for holidays
Every Christmas I spend in England, I'm reminded of the same old German joke (yes, they do exist):
A ghost driver heading the wrong way on the autobahn turns on the radio. "Be careful," the voice from the speaker says, "there's a ghost driver on the autobahn."
"A ghost driver?", the ghost driver says, stupefied. "No, there a hundreds, thousands!"
English soccer rolls on
While the rest of the football world takes a well-deserved break at the end of the year, the English inventors of the beautiful game thunder on. Boxing Day, as the second day of Christmas is called in the UK, sees a full Premier League programme and the following Monday, only 48 hours later, they will all play again - until the last patches of green are wiped out and the first metatarsal bone gives way.
Just like the confused driver from the joke, the English don't see anything exceptional in that. On the contrary, they can never quite understand why their continental neighbours in Europe don't follow suit.
"What do people in Germany do during three weeks without football?", people routinely ask me, with genuine puzzlement. Football, it is worth remembering, is officially a "winter sport" in these shores.
In order to spare supporters arduous trips during the festive period, the fixture list comprises mostly local derbies or games between neighbouring teams. This practice echoes the game's medieval origins.
The first English football reports date from the twelfth century. Back then, whole villages assembled for matches, often on religious holidays. The playing area could stretch over several miles. The goal was usually the gate of the neighbouring settlement, and the means by which the ball arrived there was irrelevant. It was kicked or carried by the men, most of who were considerably drunk, and all sorts of tackles were permitted, including stabbing opponents in the back.
"If that is what the English call playing, it would be impossible to imagine what they call fighting", a shocked French observer wrote. If the men had just returned from war, severed enemy heads would be kicked around. Many English pubs called The Saracen's Head or The Viking's Head recall this bloody custom.
A number of kings tried to outlaw this anarchic form of "folk footballe", but in vain. In "Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? How the British Invented Sport", author Julian Norridge quotes the 16th century Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbs, who protested against these ungodly games.
"Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms," wrote Stubbs, "sometimes their noses gush out with blood, sometimes their eyes start out, and sometimes hurter in one place, sometimes in another." If you look at the glossy, glamorous entertainment product called the Premier League 300 years later, you'll be relieved to find that the game hasn't changed all that much.
Boxing Day fun
Matchday 19 marks the half-way stage of the league competition. Teams who find themselves at the bottom of the table over Christmas are said to be doomed but there are often quite a few upsets as well: you'll often see strange results and plenty of goals. Boxing Day 1963 witnessed no fewer than 66 goals in the top flight.
At least peace and quiet can prevail on December 25 - the one day in the calendar when normal life comes to a complete hold in Great Britain. This wasn't always the case. Up until 1959, English teams would play each other home and away on the first and second day of Christmas, and even travel together on the same train. It would be impossible these days, of course: the privatised railway in the UK could never guarantee on-time arrival before kick-off.
About the Author
Raphael Honigstein is a London-based soccer correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's biggest broadsheet newspaper. He covers German soccer for The Guardian and Talksport Radio, is the author of "Englischer Fussball. A German's view of our Beautiful Game," and writes a regular blog on www.footbo.com.