It was July 1914, three weeks before war was declared; Steve Bloomer had travelled to Berlin to coach Berlin Britannia Football Club by way of a personal invitation from The Kaiser. He was the most famous footballer there had ever been and his fame had spread overseas.
The Bundesliga was still but an idea but the architect and inspiration was at hand and had travelled to the capital to coach and share his knowledge and skill internationally. Almost immediately he was arrested as a civilian on a peace mission and captured along with many hundreds more. He was spend three and a half years in Ruhleben prison camp.
The other internees were the unexpected beneficiaries of Bloomer’s coaching instead and inspired by the famous footballer among them, created a remarkable camp society for themselves in which organized sport figured centrally both to sustain spirits and indeed their lives through the many essential food parcels sent to Ruhleben by Bloomer’s fans back home. Bloomer captained his barracks to their own League Championship, aged 43. But no amount of celebrity could ease the pain of imprisonment. That is evident in a letter Bloomer sent in May 1916 to Ernest Gregson, the landlord of the Eagle Tavern in Green Street, Derby:
“Thank you for the cigarettes. I am so grateful that my Derby friends don’t forget to send me comforts. It is hard being kept here all this time, but we are a merry crew.’”
Bloomer constantly hoped for news of his release. In April 1917 he was called to the commandant’s office, but it was a cruel false alarm. The ‘news’ was that his 17-year-old daughter Violet had died of a kidney complaint.
“In Ruhleben we were all brothers. Our solidarity and comradeship showed itself every day and we made a life for ourselves out of nothing. There were terrible times and good times, and all who experienced them will always share a kinship and never forget. Make no mistake – boys became men in Ruhleben but it is far more pleasant for us to recall the better days when we went out to play football, and men became boys again.”