LONDON, December 24- While the rest of Europe hibernates over the Christmas holiday period, England indulges in an orgy of football, with Boxing Day the highlight of this secular and often maligned tradition.
With barely any time to digest the Christmas turkey, teams come out the next day to play as part of a series fixtures running into the first days of 2016.
Teams like Liverpool and Manchester City will have played six times in three weeks by January 11, giving rise to simmering complaints from coaches and players.
Managers mutter about the strain on players, and players grumble about being torn away from families gathered for what should be an annual bout of gift-giving, over-eating and alcoholic excesses.
But fans adore the tradition of the year-end sporting extravaganza, which since 1871 has peaked on Boxing Day.
According to one definition, the day was named after the “Christmas box” of gifts given to workers by employers.
Now the date is synonymous with sports: cricket, fox hunting, horse racing, rugby, but most of all, football.
Football fans can thank Sheffield and Hallam, the world’s oldest and second-oldest football clubs, for starting the tradition with a December 26 match back in 1860.
More than 150 years later, the magic still works.
The favourite song of Sheffield Wednesday supporters refers to the “Boxing Day Massacre” of 1979, when rivals Sheffield United were routed 4-0 in a muddy field in front of 49,309 spectators, a record turnout for a third division match.
– ‘An understanding wife’ –
For some, the Boxing Day sportfest is a day for recovery after drinking and eating too much and an escape from forced banter between seldom-seen and often bickering relatives.
For others, the matches are the only game of the year — the football equivalent of midnight mass for infrequent churchgoers, with whole families heading to the pews of the football stadium.
“There is so much in the diaries and the newspapers about men in particular finding Christmas difficult, because they are not used to spending such a long time with their family,” said Swansea University’s Martin Johnes, a football historian.
Boxing day is a way to “get out of the house, have a break from the family, clear your head slightly”, he added.
In many families, the holidays are based on the football calendar.
“In my own family, whether we go to my parents or my wife’s parents partly depends on the fixtures lists… I’ve got an understanding wife,” Johnes said.
Boxing Day matches are a must-watch; surprises are common and matches often entertaining.
In 1963, 66 goals were scored in the first division and Ipswich Town received a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of Fulham.
Losing on Boxing Day can be especially tough.
Former Liverpool coach Brendan Rogers still remembers how, after a defeat to Stoke in 2012, he got home to a house full of guests in Christmas mode.
“I went straight upstairs to my room and didn’t come out.”
Football derbies rise in prominence on Boxing Day due to limited holiday transport, with the intense rivalry between local teams often adding extra spice.
– ‘Evil’ matches –
The lucrative Premier League cashes in on the extra exposure as European contests take a break.
“This is a special time of year for supporters, when the whole world is watching the Premier League. It’s tough for us as players, but you have to embrace it,” Arsenal’s Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky told the BBC’s Match of the Day programme last year.
Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal is more strident in his criticism of holiday season fixtures.
“There is no winter break and I think that is the most evil thing of this culture,” he said in October.
“It is not good for English football. It is not good for the clubs or the national team. England haven’t won anything for how many years? Because all the players are exhausted at the end of the season.”
Year after year, the pressure rises.
In response to the complaints, some point out that matches were played on both Christmas and Boxing Day in 1950s England and into the mid-1970s in Scotland.
A third division club, Brentford, tried in 1983 to hold a Christmas Day match at Wimbledon at 11am in what a spokesman said was a bid “to revive the old tradition of husbands going to football on Christmas Day while the wives cook the turkey”.
The plan triggered an outcry, and the match was advanced to December 24, when Wimbledon won 4-3 in front of 6,689 spectators.
Johnes added: “Fans are attached to Boxing Day football because it is part of what makes Christmas Christmas.”