SAINT-PIERRE-EGLISE, France — Seventy-five years later, on tree-lined grounds at the edge of this Lower Normandy town, 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 T-shirts 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 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.”