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Ho ho ho: Games on Christmas

It's got nothing to do with football, or maybe in this particular case I should say "soccer", but did you know they once booed Santa Claus at a sporting ground? Those of you who come from the United States won't be surprised to hear that it happened in Philadelphia.

During an NFL game between the Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings on December 15, 1968, a man dressed as Santa tossed sweets into the stands. But the season wasn't going well for the Eagles, and the game wasn't going according to plan either, so the crowd booed the man and pelted him with snowballs.

I don't think this would have been possible at a proper football ground and certainly not at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff [which, yes, is actually a rugby ground, but let's not split hairs during the festive season] because Santa Claus would be at a loss without the ground in the Welsh capital.

It's true, you can look it up. According to the official stadium website, the ground plays "a vital role in Santa Claus' Christmas Eve operations". The chief groundsman even "leaves the stadium roof open on Christmas Eve so that Santa can touchdown and restock his sleigh in Cardiff before heading off around Wales and the rest of the world".

Which raises an obvious question: What if there's a game on Christmas Eve? Does that mean Santa can't restock and everyone north, or maybe south, of Cardiff won't get a present?

Don't say it could never happen. Football people once used to show a disregard for the holidays that I hesitate to call healthy and played during Christmas with gusto. By this I don't mean the traditional Boxing Day fixtures in England, which we've covered before (see "Fröhliche Weihnachten! Prosit Neujahr!", December 26, 2005). I mean Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In the Netherlands, there was a complete matchday on December 24, 1967. (On which Ajax beat the wonderfully named Telstar 3-0, while the equally well-monikered Go Ahead Eagles won away in Breda.)

Well, I can hear you say, that's typical of the Protestant Dutch. But don't jump to rash conclusions. I'm sure you'll agree that one can't get much more Catholic than the Italians - and there was a time when they thought nothing of playing on Christmas Eve, too.

There were, for instance, eight Serie A matches on December 24, 1950, among them a great game between Atalanta Bergamo and Milan. It was a Scandinavian showdown of sorts, as the Danish star Svend Jorgen Hansen scored a hat-trick for Atalanta, while Milan's legendary Swedes, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, combined for another three goals. (Milan won 7-4.)

True, in most places Christmas Eve just isn't as important as it is in the German-speaking countries, where this is the main gift-giving day. However, it's not as if things used to be any different on Christmas Day. In 1960, eight Serie A matches were played on December 25 (and one on December 24). Three of those eight games finished scoreless, which may have been a very Italian way of celebrating the season of love.

The French are less sensitive, it would seem, because on the very same day, Ligue 1 also played a complete matchday. Indeed, Nice put five past pitiful Troyes, who would go on to set a domestic record that season for goals conceded with a staggering 108.

In Germany, meanwhile, they were also busy on that Christmas Day in 1960. The Bundesliga was still a couple of years away and so the five regional Oberligen formed the highest tier in the German game. In the Oberliga West, 23,000 came out to see Schalke defeat Hamborn 07 (a club from Duisburg), while Alemannia Aachen's young centre forward Willi Bergstein beat Viktoria Cologne all by himself, scoring a hat-trick in front of 6,000 as Aachen defended first place.

In Britain, it is now a tradition that a full programme of football matches is held on Boxing Day, but there used to be fixtures on Christmas Day as well. As late as 1957, no less than 38 league games were played across the country on December 25. The last such game took place eight years later, when Blackpool beat Blackburn 4-2. (Incidentally, on that same day - December 25, 1965 - Barcelona won 3-2 against Las Palmas in Spain's Primera Division.)

In Scotland, they regularly had full matchdays on Christmas Day until 1971. That year, Celtic won 3-2 against Hearts on December 25. I picked out this particular result because Celtic took the lead through a header from a certain 27-year-old striker and I like to imagine there was a photo of the goal in the next day's newspaper that bore the caption: Harry Hood heads home against Hearts.

Even national teams weren't averse to keep playing until the festive season was almost upon us. Today, nobody would schedule an international for December 23, but that's the day West Germany played Luxembourg (1951), Belgium (1956) and Switzerland (1962). The Germans won those games 4-1, 4-1 and 5-1, respectively, so maybe this date deserves to make a comeback to the calendar. (Interestingly, Germany played two games on a December 22 in Mexico City, in 1968 and 1993. I presume the players just barely made it home in time for the Christmas tree decorations.)

Alright, I can hear you ask, if they ever bring back those Christmas Eve and Christmas Day games, where should they best be staged? One option is the ground in Manchester which seems to be called Etihad Stadium now. This may not be all too obvious, but consider that two of Santa's reindeer appeared there a few weeks back. I'm not kidding you. Man City's official website reported on November 7 that "the reindeer have been loaned out from Santa's stable at the North Pole". (Guess City's transfer policy is always good for a surprise.)

Perhaps another option is the Holy Stadium? It does exist, in Semarang, which is a city on the island of Java. However, as far as I understand, the Holy Stadium not really a stadium in the sporting sense but rather a very large church with a 12,000 seat capacity.

So I think the perfect venue for any future Christmas fixtures would be the ground where Italy's AS Bari play their home games. It was designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano, built for the 1990 World Cup and named after the saint Nikolaos of Myra: Stadio San Nicola. In the English language, this historic person is known as Saint Nicholas and became the model for Santa Claus. I bet Bari fans would never boo him either.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year, even if you don't celebrate this holiday or use a different calendar. See you at the end of the winter break!


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