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Soccer Set Them Free

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An untold tale of WW2 Italian prisoners finding refuge in playing their beloved game on the shores of Puget Sound.

Even after some four years of study and digging about, many things still don’t make sense. Yet something of beauty or wonder doesn’t always have to add up.

The fact are as follows:

• Seventy-five years ago, at the height of World War II, Italian prisoners of war are relocated to military installations in Seattle, Auburn and Tacoma. Because Italy had recently surrendered to the Allies, while the POWs are technically captives, they are granted extraordinary freedoms.

• Just weeks after one of those POWs is brutally murdered at Fort Lawton, his unit creates a team and is accepted into the highest senior league in the Washington State Football Association. Soon, two more Italian units soon follow suit.

• These three teams, plus two Italians who are guest players for a local club, not only keep the league afloat during wartime, they raise the standard of play, introduce a new and attractive style, and win many trophies in the process.

• Over the course of a year, they are first welcomed, then resented, ridiculed and, in one case, forced from the league. All the while these prisoners find refuge in playing soccer and, while they speak little English, their actions speak volumes of their respect for their temporary home and the American war effort.

After researching this subject through combing newspaper archives and interviewing historians and authors, it became clear that the 1944/45 season was unlike any other in our local soccer community’s history – and it was likely unique to the hundreds of Italian Service Units’ experiences across America.

Freedom to Play details accounts of that strange and stunning campaign. Yes, it’s about the arrival of the calcio and its mesmerizing effect on both game and its followers. It’s also a study of human beings and the heights and depths of their behavior in some trying circumstances.

The takeaway, for me, is that soccer’s ability to bring together some of the globe’s most disparate peoples is perhaps its greatest appeal. Not all of the participants play nice. But it is heartening that some good, some tales of true character, could be squeezed from years of horror and bloodshed suffered throughout Earth’s deadliest conflict to date. Even in the darkest of hours, this game we love – soccer – offers us the tools to cope and, best of all, hope.

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian and longtime contributor to Sounder at Heart.