Sport is often compared with war. Just think of some of the language used by football commentators: the goalkeeper can find himself caught in “no man’s land”, or the manager might try to “marshal the troops” after conceding a goal.
There are similar examples in almost every sport: we hear about “a campaign”, about “surrender” and “the enemy”. Listen closely, and you will notice frequent allusions to warfare used to describe what is really just a game.
In truth, sport is the antithesis of war. Games are won and lost, but sport has no resolution: there is always the next match, the next season to look forward to. Sport is about hope.
One of the rare times that these two worlds do come together is when athletes serve in the armed forces. Perhaps the most striking example of this is former NFL star Pat Tillman. Eight months after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman walked away from a lucrative career and enlisted with the U.S. Army. He served a tour of Iraq and was then redeployed to Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire in April 2004.
What makes Tillman’s case both unique and shocking is that he enlisted of his own free will. That he was killed in action serves as a tragic conclusion to what was above all an act of great selflessness.
Tillman’s story is by no means commonplace. Far more normal when it comes to sports stars and the military is the completion of compulsory service, usually with many concessions and plenty of press attention. In countries where conscription remains, athletes are often called up to serve short stints in special battalions, playing for their army team without facing any real risk.
Earlier this year, Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min and his South Korea teammates were exempted from military service after winning the Asian Games. The same allowance was made for the 2002 squad, which reached the semi-finals of the World Cup on home soil.
While Son and his fellow countrymen played their way out of national service, others have served their time. Indeed, while Son is a high-profile example, some even bigger names have donned fatigues – if only for the benefit of the photographers.
Today, military conscription is an increasingly rare thing, particularly among European nations. In Britain, for example, it lingered in the years that followed World War II but was abolished for good in 1963.
This placed Britain ahead of many of its neighbours: France, Italy and Germany have all now ended mandatory military conscription, but did not do so until the early years of the 21st century.
This led to a number of household names completing military service. In fact, the biggest football star of the nineties served a short and largely forgotten stint, even turning out for his country at a major military tournament.
French military service existed in various forms for some 200 years. By the early nineties, it was limited to 10 months (down from 12 months between 1970 and 1992) and was gradually phased out during the presidency of Jacques Chirac, finally ending in 2001.
Before this, young footballers were expected to serve their stint like any other member of society, whether they played in the amateur leagues or at the top of the professional game.
FROM JOINVILLE TO STADE DE FRANCE
This takes us back to 1991, when a young Zinedine Zidane was establishing himself as a regular in the Cannes side under the stewardship of Boro Primorac.
The Mediterranean club finished fourth in Ligue 1 in 1990-91, earning themselves a spot in the following season’s UEFA Cup and a first taste of European football. Zidane was also turning out regularly for the French youth sides and was a member of the under-21s by 1990.
But in June 1991 the rising star of the French game got his call up and duly began his service at the Bataillon de Joinville.
This, however, was no regular army unit. Bataillon de Joinville was specifically reserved for sportspeople, and had already seen some huge names pass through its gates. Indeed, during the eighties, three of France’s biggest global stars – Michel Platini, Alain Prost and Yannick Noah – were all stationed there.
Zidane arrived at the perfect moment. Indeed, one suspects that his call-up was intentionally timed to coincide with the 1991 Military World Games, of which football was a major part. He would join a team led by Roger Lemerre, a former international who had taken the reigns of the army side in 1986.
The 1991 tournament was staged in the Netherlands. Three groups of three played each other once, with the top two progressing to another group stage. France lost to Turkey, but comfortably beat Guinea to reach the next round.
Here they would play Italy and the Netherlands, with the group winner reaching the final and the runner-up moving to the third-place play-off. A draw with the Italians and a narrow win over the hosts was not quite enough, after which the French lost the third-place match to Turkey.
There would be no medal for Zidane on this occasion – though he would more than make up for it just a few years later.
His military service officially stretched to the end of 1991, but he was able to resume his progress with Cannes and then made the move to Bordeaux at the season’s end. From there it was Juventus, World Cup glory, and then Real Madrid.
But for Lemare, the journey was not over – and nor, for that matter, was his relationship with Zidane.
The French once again finished fourth in the 1993 tournament, going down 3-0 to Germany in the third-place match while Egypt and Morocco played out an all-North African final that ended 3-2 to the Egyptians after extra time.
But in 1995, Lemare’s recruits lifted the trophy for the first time in more than 30 years. They did so on Italian soil after the hosts and favourites – whose squad included the talents of Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro – crashed out to Cyprus.
For Lemerre, this marked a fitting end to a decade in charge of his nation’s military side. He returned to club football, taking charge at RC Lens and helping the northern club to avoid relegation. Then, in 1998, he joined the senior national team as assistant to head coach Aime Jacquet.
Lemerre was thus reunited with a number of his old recruits: Zidane, of course, was by now the star of the team, but Lemerre had also overseen Fabien Barthez, Emmanuel Petit and Bixente Lizarazu during their military spells. All would prove crucial as France lifted the 1998 World Cup.
With Jacquet departing after the tournament, the former army coach was handed the top job. Two years later he led France to glory at Euro 2000. A disastrous 2002 World Cup brought his tenure to an end, but Lemare was nevertheless a major part of a golden age in French football.
TWO VERY DIFFERENT WORLDS
There are plenty of other examples of athletes completing national service. Gianluca Vialli won the Military World Cup with Italy in 1987, sporting a full head of hair and with future Juventus teammate Ciro Ferrara alongside him in the line-up. Jurgen Klinsmann served at the age of 18, while making his breakthrough with Stuttgarter Kickers.
Bruce Grobbelaar served in the Rhodesian army before playing in England, in the years before his country was rechristened Zimbabwe. Widening the scope to other sports, the veteran Formula 1 driver Kimi Raikkonen served in the Finnish military in his early twenties – although the tales he tells of his experience do not paint him as a model recruit.
These are intriguing stories, but in truth the two worlds are best kept separate. Today, the armed forces are staffed by full-time professionals who are committed to their jobs, not by conscripts.
In contrast, by the late 20th century, athletes serving their military service had become little more than a PR opportunity, joining special units and taking part in photo-shoots. It is difficult to see what good that did for hard-working service men and women.
Sport is not war: it is entertainment, a welcome distraction from the realities of everyday life. That is why it hits so hard on the rare occasions when serious injury or death occurs. In the 21st century, there is no need to bring them together.