English football has always been a tightly-buttoned affair. Beneath its hollered everyday excitements it is essentially a Gary Cooperish entity: taciturn, anti-bunkum, disinclined to hold forth at length on its own inner life. Quite frankly English football just doesn't want to talk about it. And so, unusually for such a vivid, emotive occupation, football in England lacks any real intellectual back-story, a clear sense of doctrinal debate or feuding principals. For the vast majority of its professional life this has been a game that has existed only in its deeds, the broad silhouette of its protagonists and the turf wars of its own minute geography.

It is a peculiar state of affairs in a nation that, in pretty much every other field, can be relied upon to produce mob-handed academia. Witness the great flopping, writhing intellectual life that surrounds music, art, politics, television and even other major sports. Attempts have been made periodically to talk about football in a manner that looks beyond the merely physical. Walter Winterbottom introduced the scholarly tactics lecture to his England team meetings. "Art is many things to many men," he wrote at the start of chapter two of his book Soccer Partnership. "Football is a wonderful game. A hundred flowers grow in its garden," he mused a bit later. Unsurprisingly, Winterbottom met with a degree of scoffing resistance. Stan Cullis hinted darkly at "funny ideas" being punted about, at a time when, frankly, any kind of idea was a funny idea. Tommy Lawton openly ridiculed the use of a blackboard, shouting in one team meeting "Look, Walter, let's stop all this guff!" before walking out.

This is not an isolated hostility. Looking back over 120 years of professional football it is a genuine struggle to stitch together a written history of a discursive intellectual life of English football, of a playing ideology rather than simply playing systems. Charles Hughes did at least attempt to graft an interest in theory and ideas on to his long ball prescriptions. Those opposed to him often took an even more damaging path, rejecting the idea of theory altogether. For a while the stance of the carping anti-intellectual gained a cultish ascendancy — the yob-genius philosophy of Brian Clough with his "there's-a-ball-go-and-play-with-it" minimalism.

Anti-intellectualism has also promoted isolation. If a recently-enrolled football GCSE student were asked to sketch in the theoretical background to the current ideologically-robust Barcelona team you can imagine the kind of stock answer that would emerge: mention of Dutch football in the 1970s, of the birth of the short-passing game in Spain in the 1920s, of the central European advances of the inter-war years. Not much from England though: no creed, no doctrine, no noticeable style influences here. Other disciplines may have had their salons and their movements, their Bloomsbury Sets and their cubist brotherhoods. But to date English Football has never worn a beret and paraded the left-bank of the Seine arm in arm with a consumptive philosopher or published its own ars gratia ars manifesto on a hand-cranked bedroom press.

Except maybe once or twice — and then only quietly. History is made up of stories, some of which still require a little a little colouring at the edges. The story of the Ruhleben prison camp is explicitly documented elsewhere as part of the wider history of the First World War. But it is also a story that belongs to football, where it has remained on the fringes as a fascinating oddity. It is even possible that something brilliantly illuminating happened there, part Escape To Victory, part footballing salon, part late-colonial Woodstock distilled through sternly moustachioed men of empire. And even if it is impossible to know for sure, the facts are still deliciously persuasive. 

At which point the wind chimes start to tinkle, your screen starts to blur and the zebra-striped time tunnel starts to echo with premonitory rumbles. It seems odd now to think that even after the start of the First World War British nationals were quite happily wandering around Germany's major cities unmolested. Even after Britain entered the fray it was necessary at first simply to register with a police station and regularly present documents. Before long however it became clear to that large-scale detention would be necessary. For the first time in modern mainland Europe a form of concentration camp would be called into being, clumsily and with no pre-planning.

Among the first to open its gates was Ruhleben Prisoner of War Camp, a civilian detention camp set up six miles to the west of Berlin on a site that was originally a race course. The first shipments of camp detainees were male citizens of the Allied Powers who just happened to be in Germany at the time: teachers, students, mariners, holiday-makers, overseas workers and the odd unwitting British husband.

In time this collection of disparate individuals related only by nationality would evolve into something truly remarkable, a phenomenon described by John Davidson Ketchum, an academic imprisoned there for the entire war, as "the fullest picture known to me of the actual growth of a human society... a world so complete and many-sided that its existence in a prison camp is almost unbelievable".

Not so initially. Ruhleben had very few facilities at its inception. The men brought there were effectively dumped, imprisoned without structure or routine. The early days were terribly harsh. The men wore wooden clogs and donated winter coats. They slept in straw-filled horse boxes crawling with lice and washed at a single stand-pipe.

Eventually the German authorities allowed the camp detainees to begin administering their own internal affairs. And so gradually a mini-society began to evolve. A postal service, the Ruhleben Express, was set up. Books and sports equipment were finagled and a printing press devised. The prisoners conjured up their own police force, plus a camp magazine and library. Displaced high-flyers, exiled experts, travelling scholars, these captured citizens began to reveal the depths of their communal ingenuity — and so Ruhleben bloomed, a love letter to the resourcefulness of a certain strain of British organisational pluck, and an expression of the creative cultural eclecticism often overlooked in the dubious legacy of empire.

Overseen by a permissive and admiring camp commandant (who would later be disciplined by his less lenient superiors) the site was transformed under the eyes of its sentries. A surviving map shows tennis courts, a YMCA, a casino, a post office, a tea house, office buildings, wash houses and two full-sized football pitches.

And so as the war continued in France a Spandau ballet unfurled at Ruhleben, a wartime melting pot of ideas and education enjoyed by a complete cross-section of British society. One prisoner wrote in a pamphlet published after the war "from the manor house to the slum, scarcely a breed or profession was unrepresented. All were jammed together in a small stableyard — company directors and seamen, concert musicians and factory workers, science professors and jockeys... We were indeed a mixed crowd. I have walked along to the kitchen with the Earl of Perth (nicknamed Pearl of the earth) a coloured and a fireman."

The cast of Ruhleben in this period was almost comically diverse. Among those pulled together were:

  • F Charles Adler, a student of Gustav Mahler and world famous conductor
  • Sir James Chadwick, Nobel laureate physicist who first conceived of the nuclear bomb
  • Prince Honolulu, legendary horse racing tipster of the 1920s whose catchphrase was "I gotta horse!",and who via Pathé news films became the most well-known black person of the time in Britain 
  • "Bertie" Smylie , legendary sombrero-wearing alcoholic editor of the Irish Times
  • Geoffrey Pyke, writer, inventor, garden-shed genius and a man who once demonstrated his invention of aircraft carriers made out of ice to Winston Churchill in his bath

A campus spirit evolved out of these men of many disciplines. Lecture courses were delivered and fevered full-time educations embarked upon. In time classes were offered on calculus, elementary physics, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, radioactivity, heredity, biology, music, literature, German literature (in German), Italian literature (in Italian), Shakespeare and Euripides.

A Ruhleben theatre was born. Plays were staged, a standing orchestra retained, music hall shows devised and even a triumphant line in female impersonators groomed, as immortalised in one Ruhleben song (sample lyrics: "for we're the girls, girls, girls,/ with our curls, curls, curls./ We wouldn't harm you but we'd kiss you now and then;/ You could tell us when./ We'd fool around and fool around!"). As Ketchum frowningly noted "the camp had many good-looking boys, a professional ballet master and unlimited time for rehearsal; under such circumstances female impersonations can be strangely successful."

By the summer of 1915 there were a hundred or so organised bodies at Ruhleben. "Activities were extended, improved, subdivided and elaborated to the point where Ruhleben became a world in itself," noted the journalist Israel Cohen, also a prisoner, adding rather bleakly, "It was a necessity if we were to maintain our physical fitness and save ourselves from ennui and inertia."

It is here that football first begins to enter the frame, intruding rather mildly into this world of promiscuous ad hoc intellectualism like a wall flower at a street carnival.

Crucially for this strand of the Ruhleben story, among the prominent camp members were several eminent British footballers. Most notable were Fred Pentland and Steve Bloomer: one a giant of the era in the making, the other an all-time hall-of-famer; until Stanley Matthews's appearance, perhaps England's most celebrated footballer.

Jammed in at the lunch counter alongside the nuclear scientist and the poet, sharing a latrine block with the professor of medieval English, the football men also began to flourish and to command at Ruhleben, and to take an athletic centre stage alongside all this cerebral inter-marriage. Pentland in particular is Ruhleben's great footballing secret, a figure of some historical influence whose internship at the camp immediately pre-dates his era-defining deeds in Bilbao as manager of Athletic. Pentland was for many decades marginalised in English football history, his reputation resurrected recently in this country by the growing interest both in Spanish football and England's own knotted past.

He is now cultishly celebrated — and with good reason too. The son of the lord mayor of Birmingham, Pentland had played for Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, Middlesbrough and England; a skilful winger who, it was said, over-elaborated on the ball, albeit in a Football League in which any form of elaboration, even the ungilded lily itself, has often been seen as a vice.

Having arrived from Atlético Madrid, Pentland led Bilbao to two Spanish titles and five Copas del Rey, earning the nickname ‘el Bombín' (‘the Bowler Hat'). He is still present in the form of a statue outside the stadium. More than collecting trophies, he became synonymous with a style of play, a system of short-passing possession football that was anathema to the English league of the time and notable for its novelty in Spain too. It is a method that has, needless to say, lingered as a consistent — and now dominant — Iberian style of play ever since.

Pentland had retired as a player in 1913, shortly after which he travelled to Berlin to accept an invitation to coach the German Olympic football team (a job previously turned down by Jimmy Hogan, another itinerant English theorist of the time, who would instead find himself marooned under house arrest in a stately home in Budapest for much of the war). It was not a timely relocation. Within a few months he had been interned at Ruhleben, where he was shortly joined by Bloomer, who at the age of 43 remained a genuine star. In 536 First Division matches Bloomer scored 317 goals, and racked up 28 in 23 appearances for England. Possessed of a phenomenal shot — an attribute not to be underestimated in the era of the mud-bloated brown leather ball — he also played with an appealing swagger. Bloomer was ambitious, too. With most English football clubs still in the twin feudal grip of the secretary-manager and the trainer, and governed from afar by its magnate-directors, he travelled abroad in search of a wider experience, coaching in Germany and the Netherlands, where it was reported platforms filled up with cheering fans as rumour spread that Bloomer's train would be pulling through. In July 1914 he accepted a post coaching at Berlin Britannia. Three weeks later he was interned at Ruhleben, six miles from his club's headquarters.

Bloomer later spoke about the dark early days at the camp, how each man received a billy-can to eat out of, into which was dumped daily a piece of blood sausage and some watery porridge. Unpromising beginnings, but Bloomer was soon joined by familiar faces in among the eggheads, the spies, the trawlermen and the émigrés. John Cameron was a Scot who had been player-manager at Tottenham Hotspur and guided them to victory in the 1901 FA Cup. Cameron had fallen out with his directors at Spurs after demanding more control over team affairs. Taking a well-worn path he left England for Europe and was coaching at Dresdner SC when the knock at the door came. 

Fred Spiksley was a forward who played for Sheffield Wednesday and England. He retired in 1906 and won league titles as a coach in Sweden, Mexico and Germany. He was at Nuremberg when he was interned with his son, Fred Jr. Another heavyweight of the times, Samuel Wolstenholme, had played alongside Bloomer in the England teams that won the British Home Championship in 1904 and 1905, before going off to coach the North German Football Association XI.

It was no accident these men — ambitious types, theorists, adventurers — happened to be in Germany when war broke out. Germany and Austria were experiencing their own footballing golden era, drawing with their hunger for formal coaching from these revered internationalists keen to explore the social mobility of the new frontiers.

And so it was only natural that football should flourish in the Petri dish of Ruhleben. Twenty-four hours after its gates opened the first kickabout ("an improvised game of football") was recorded. Within two weeks teams — Tottenham Hotspurs, Manchester Rangers, Bolton Wanderers — had been called into existence. "There was only one football and none too robust," Cohen noted, and initially matches were played with goalposts marked by "piled-up jackets". The camp commander General von Kessel ‘s objections and the early snow and mud of winter soon put a stop to a flourishing scratch competition. That first winter Kessel was steered into annexing a playing field adjacent to the camp, and in March 1915 the twin pitches of the Ruhleben league were marked out and football began in earnest.

Cohen later noted "much of [football's] popularity was undoubtedly due to the presence and activities of the two international players, Mr Steve Bloomer and Mr Fred Pentland, who had been teaching the German youth how to kick the ball when they were overtaken by the war." It was these two, along with Cameron, who formed the Ruhleben Football Association, with Pentland as chairman and Cameron as secretary.

The first match under the new system was played on 28 March 1915 between Ruhleben, captained by Bloomer, and the Rest, captained by a Mr Richards. It was billed in camp literature as "the Great International Match". The POWs took to the field in a standard 2-3-5 formation and the camp magazine noted "the form in this game was so good that everyone could see with practice the play could reach a pretty high standard." On 2 May 1915 an England XI featuring Pentland, Wolstenholme and Bloomer played a World XI captained by Cameron.

A turning point arrived with the formation of first and second teams in all 14 barracks. Cup and league competitions were organised with as many as 1,000 internee spectators attending the bigger games. Players played in kits sent from England in barrack room colours. Keen rivalries developed and results and league tables were studied feverishly. With the league attracting "huge crowds" Bloomer's Barrack 1 won the opening league championship and Barrack 4 the Cup competition "after a stubbornly contested game".

After a summer break the second football season kicked off on October 15 with "a vigorous match" between Bloomer's XI and Cameron's XI. The Camp magazine recorded "a fresh snug, Sunlit soap sort of feeling, with everybody looking quite satisfied with the world and with himself, but careful not to let his feelings get the better of decorum. The weather was ideal, the ground good, the crowd big. What more could the football enthusiast ask?"

And so football spread its tentacles throughout the hothouse environment of the larger camp. Hundreds of men could be seen doing "physical jerks" every morning under a fitness programme devised by "an Olympic runner", while players were also taught boxing and fencing. The FA secretaries were kept busy keeping scores, writing minutes, scouting opponents and keeping up an endless selection debate as the mass bureaucracy of the empire was applied to Ruhleben's football.

It was a hugely regulated environment, with the Sports Control Committee at the top and beneath that the Ruhleben Football Association. Players were periodically suspended or disciplined. Regular training was organised and matches followed by reviews and reports. At one point a hypothetical Ruhleben World Cup squad of 28 men was selected (15 years before the first World Cup was staged), an internationalism that flourished towards the end of the war when a triangular tournament called the Coupe des Allies was staged, featuring a British XI, a French XI and a Belgian XI.

The legacy of all this is impossible to quantify. Two things really stand out. The first enduring monument to Ruhleben's football frontiersmanship is the Handbook of the Ruhleben Football Association. This was a book of 48 pages printed in Berlin in September 1915 ("at great cost"). It is a review of the season, with biographies of players, interviews with captains and some tactical discussion. It is also in its own way a first: the first time anything close to a coaching manual or a tactical guide had been written. Decanted out of the heady intellectualism of Ruhleben's multi-discipline school, the Ruhleben FA had caught the literary bug. The handbook is a suggestion of what might have followed had English football been able to re-absorb a hint of the furious progressiveness of peak-era Ruhleben. It is a book that any serious attempt at a literary history of English football should feature prominently in its opening pages. 

Beyond this, Ruhleben's legacy is less tangible. It is instructive to look at what emerged from the camp, the lasting legacy of those that went on to greater things elsewhere. One thing seems certain. Out of context it still seems odd now that Pentland, an Englishman, should end up introducing a style of play — short rather than long passing, possession rather than athleticism — to a Spanish team, as he did at Bilbao. With Ruhleben in the immediate background it is even tempting to start twitching the string: to begin a process of historical excavation that sees Pentland, the itinerant Englishman, staging a wartime tactical eureka moment in the mud of Ruhleben; of the first stirrings of a way of playing football that would later emerge in Spain via the coaching careers of Pentland and Bloomer; and which would even lay the stylistic foundations for the glories of the great Barcelona and Spain teams of the early 21st century.

There is, of course, no real basis for this beyond the magnetism of a good yarn. There is no paper trail — how could there be? — just an appealing sense of a footballing Da Vinci Code that has its genesis in the fevered wartime evolutions of a Berlin POW camp. And yet nobody has ever adequately explained where Pentland learned such a style, and at what point he decided this was the way football ought to be played. All that seems certain is that an intensive international school evolved at Ruhleben. And that alongside Cameron, one of the Scots responsible for the refined short-passing game of the Spurs amateurs of the turn of the century, there is an obvious brains trust.

Certainly many of those exposed to the fevered cerebral energy of Ruhleben went on to notable things. Bloomer was finally released from Ruhleben on 22 March 1918. He lived in Amsterdam with a chemist and his family and was hired as a coach by Blauw Wit FC. The highlight of his coaching career would come in 1924 when he guided Real Unión to victory in the Copa del Rey. After returning to England he worked as a newspaper columnist and eventually as a groundsman at the Baseball Ground before his death in April 1938.

The pattern — achievement overseas followed by a falling to earth in the indifferent environs of home — is a familiar one. Cameron, secretary of the Ruhleben FA and author of its Handbook, coached Ayr United for one season. Spiksley escaped from Ruhleben in early 1915. By 1918 he was working as a coach in Spain. Later he reappeared in Mexico and then in Germany where he led FC Nürnberg to the title in 1927. He then spent the rest of his career attempting to coach skills in the modern way. For a while he made training films at Fulham FC, one of which featured his own major invention: the backheel.

Most famously Pentland went on to coach France at the Olympic Games and then to have great success in Spain, later taking great pride in Spain's achievement when they became the first foreign nation to beat England in a full international. He returned to England before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and briefly worked as an assistant manager at Brentford and then as manager of Barrow.

None of these men ever mentioned Ruhleben publicly, or name-checked its spirit of adventure as a force in their own peripatetic development. There really is no overwhelming case for hailing Europe's first wartime civilian concentration camp as the cradle of modern football, the colonial collegiate league within which the designs of the modern style were first sketched out — nothing beyond the deeds of those who were there and the seductions of a good yarn. For English football it is also a deeply flattering version of events, a suggestion that, beneath it all, it might even harbour a founding theorist or two. Perhaps for that reason alone, it might be argued, Ruhleben and its band of displaced insurgents deserve to be remembered a little more widely. 

This article appeared on Episode Eight of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.