50 Soccer Players Who Served in War Time
You can make the argument that soccer players serve their countries every match by inspiring the hopes of their countrymen and women.
In times of war, a number of soccer players immortalized in and forgotten by the tides of time have served their countries in a very different way—as members of the armed forces.
Here is a list of 50 of the many who did so.
photo: Bolton Wanderers at war, 1939.
A Historical Note
As you scroll through these names, you’ll notice that the players listed are primarily British. There are a few reasons for this.
First, the fascist powers during the Second World War—namely Germany, Italy and Spain—kept their leagues running during the conflict, while Britain shipped most of its players off, reserving only the biggest stars for friendly matches.
Secondly, very little information exists in English on players from a number of countries that suffered through conflicts, particularly from the days before football was international entertainment. Research on the topic proves very difficult.
If you know of any players from non-English speaking countries not included, please list them in the comments section.
photo: Juventus during World War II.
A number of players listed served in the Footballers' Battalion during World War I.
William Joynson Hicks, a British political figure, created the Footballer Battalion because he felt it unjust that good British lads went off to war while athletes got to hang around at home playing games.
Early on in the war, a Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited Upton Park, asking players and attendees at half time to sign up for the war effort. A number did, seriously increasing the ranks for the Football Battalion.
photo: Boleyn Ground, 1940.
Scotsman Willie Thornton scored 138 goals in 219 performances for the Rangers between 1936 and 1954. He is one of Scottish football’s all-time top scorers.
After retiring as a player, Thornton managed Dundee and Patrick Thistle, and served as caretaker for the Rangers for one year.
In addition to his long-lasting career in Scottish football, Thornton served in the Scottish Horse regiment of the British Territorial Army during World War II.
Willie won the Millitary Medal, which was awarded for “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.”
Goalkeeper Bert Trautmann put in 508 performances for Manchester City between 1949 and 1964.
Trautmann joined the Luftwaffe at the outbreak for World War II and served on both the eastern and western fronts. He was one of only 90 men from his 1000-strong unit to survive before being captured by the British.
During the course of the war, Trautmann was awarded five medals by the Nazis, including an Iron Cross. After the war, Trautmann took up farming in Great Britain while playing football at the local level, before being conscripted by City.
He won FWA Footballer of the Year for 1956, in which year he put in a legendary performance for the FA Cup final.
photo: Trautman, center.
Right back Tom Cooper played professional soccer for 16 years at such clubs as Port Vale, Derby County and Liverpool.
In his last professional match, at Stamford Bridge in 1940, Cooper helped the Reds defeat the Blues 1-0. Later that year, Cooper joined the Royal Military Police to help in the war effort.
In June of 1940, Cooper was ridding a dispatch motorcycle, ferrying messages for the war effort, when he collided with a lorry and died. His death resulted in the British government demanding that all dispatch riders wear helmets.
Harry Goslin scored 23 goals in 306 matches as a defender for the Bolton Wanderers during the 1930s. He signed for a fee of £25.
During a match on 8 April 1939, Goslin told the assembled supporters that the entire team would enlist immediately after the match. They kept their promise, and became well known for their efforts.
Goslin was promoted to sergeant and served an important role during troop withdrawal at Dunkirk. In 1942, Goslin and the rest of the Wanderers served in Egypt and made their way through the Middle East, where they played a friendly match against members of the Polish army.
Harry died in December of 1943 in a mortar explosion.
photo: Harry Goslin at right.
Herbie Roberts won four First Division titles in 11 years at Arsenal. Upon retiring in 1937, he took up the job of training the Gunners’ second team.
With the outbreak of World War II, Roberts enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers infantry regiment, serving as a lieutenant. He died at the age of 39 of erysipelas, a skin disease that induces fevers, shaking, chills, fatigue, headaches and vomiting.
Roberts was one of nine Arsenal players to die during WWII.
The story of German soldier Fritz Walter is so outlandish it seems more myth than reality.
Walter was conscripted by the Nazis and ended up fighting the Soviets on the eastern front. He was captured toward the end of the war and destined for shipment to Siberian work camps, where prisoners were expected to live no longer than five years.
While at a holding camp for prisoners of war, Walter caught a stray ball from a friendly game of football between guards and so dazzled them with his skill that he was quickly playing exhibition matches set up amongst the prisoners to show off his ability.
Some say that he even coached teams and organized leagues in the detainment center, though how much of that is myth is hard to know.
When time came for the prisoners to board the train for the Gulag, a guard spoke up on Walter's behalf. The soldier managed to convince his superiors that Walter was in fact Austrian, not German, and that he didn't deserve the punishment.
Walter went on to captain the West German national side in the ’54 World Cup.
photo: Walter with the World Cup trophy.
Mexican-born Briton Frank Burton started his career at Queens Park Rangers before playing left back and right back for West Ham United and Charlton Athletic.
Nicknamed Bronco, Burton served in the Royal Fusiliers during World War I. He incurred six injuries at numerous battles, including Ypres, Somme and Cambrai. Bronco was awarded the Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War, for his efforts.
All of this happened before his professional soccer career, which began 1919, a year after the war ended, when Frank was 28.
Scottish soccer player Norman Corbett had a long sporting career.
It began in his school years, when young Corbett captained his Falkirk side to the Scottish Schools Trophy. He played for Scottish Boys and Scotland Junior before signing with Hearts at age 15.
Corbett made 166 performances with West Ham between 1937 and 1950, though he missed a few years during World War II, during which time he served with the Essex Regiment.
Corbett was on the Hammers team that won the War Cup in 1940.
photo: Corbett, center, in military uniform, with West Ham teammates celebrating victory in the War Cup.
Another Scotsman, inside right Archie Macaulay made 83 performances with West Ham and 103 for Arsenal.
A Falkirk native, Macaulay began playing for Rangers at 18 and went on to manage West Bromwich Albion, among other teams.
Because of Macaulay’s prominence as a player, he was allowed to stay in Britain during the war and play throughout the conflict, though he served the war effort at home through the Essex Regiment.
photo: Macaulay at left.
Wilf Mannion’s shock of blond hair earned him the nickname “Golden Boy.”
The Golden Boy put in nearly 350 appearances with Middlesbrough as an inside forward, and earned 26 national caps. He scored 111 goals in his career.
In 1940, Mannion went to France with the British army to take part in a massive offensive designed to stop the progressive of Germany’s Western Offensive.
In 1943, he took part in the siege of Sicily, during which time his captain was England international cricketer Hedley Verity.
photo: Mannion, right.
Joe Webster was one of the soccer players who joined the British Footballers' Battalion during World War I.
The West Ham and Watford goalkeeper spent three years on the western front, where he fought in the battles of Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Cambrai.
Though he survived the war, Webster died young, at the age of 44.
Water Hull became only the second black man to play top-flight football in the UK when he first took the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur in 1909.
After playing in 120 matches at Tottenham and Northampton Town, Tull enlisted in the Footballers’ Battalion. Despite British law explicitly stating those of African or mixed racial heritage could not serve as miitary officers, Tull assumed the rank of second lieutenant.
The soccer pioneer was killed in action in 1918 during the Spring Offensive. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.
Vivian Woodward was one of the greats of the early days of organized English soccer. As a center forward, he scored 93 goals in 238 appearances for Tottenham and Chelsea.
At the international level, Woodward captained Great Britain (not England, mind you) to gold medals in the 1908 and 1912 Olympic games. As a member of England Amateurs, Woodward scored eight goals in a brutal 15-0 routing of an amateur squad from France.
During World War I, Woodward served in the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, a Footballers' Battalion. He fought on the western front, reached the rank of captain and was injured in battle in 1916 when a hand grenade blew up near his leg.
Major Frank Buckley played professional soccer for 18 years on and off, including stints at Aston Villa, Manchester United and Manchester City.
Buckley was the first soccer player to join the Footballers' Battalion. Because he had served in the military previous to his football career, Buckley was automatically awarded the rank of lieutenant and quickly worked his way to major.
Major Buckley was sent back to Britain in 1917 when a gas attack badly damaged his lungs. Rumor has it he cared so passionately for the men in his charge that he paid for the education of the three sons of a man who was killed by a sniper.
After the War, Buckley continued his soccer career and went on to manage Wolverhampton, Hull City and other teams after retiring as a player.
Scottish striker Richard McFadden was Clapton Orient’s top scorer for four seasons, from 1911 to 1915.
In his first season with the club, McFadden broke the team’s single-season scoring record, only to break his own record in his last season at Clapton Orient.
The footballer served as Company Sergeant Major Richard McFadden in World War I, and gave his life during the Battle of the Somme, but not before writing a long letter to the club eulogizing fellow Clapton Orient player Willie Jonas, who died not long before McFadden.
photo: War memorial near the site of McFadden's death.
How many Scottish soccer players served in World War I? Well, a lot.
William Angus won the Victoria Cross for his service in the War, the most prestigious award for gallantry meted by the British crown.
Angus won the Cross for leaving a trench during heavy bombing and gunfire to rescue a wounded soldier, receiving 40 wounds in the process. The footballer lost part of his foot and his left eye, but saved the life of the other soldier.
Previous to the War, Angus played for Carluke Rovers, Celtic and Wisham Athletic in the Scottish league.
Donald Bell won the Victoria Cross for gallantry on account of his actions in the Battle of Somme.
According to the official report of his actions in the London Gazette, “2nd Lt. Bell immediately, and on his own initiative, crept up a communication trench and then…rushed across the open under very heavy fire and attacked the machine gun, shooting the firer with his revolver, and destroying gun and personnel with bombs.”
Bell was a professional teacher and amateur soccer player before the war at both Crystal Palace and Newcastle United. He died in battle July 10, 1916 at age 25.
Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Vann was an ordained minister who graduated from the somewhat spectacularly named Jesus College.
A professional soccer player at Northampton Town, Burton United FC and Derby County, Vann won four awards for his military service “for most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and fine leadership during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt.”
Vann fell victim to a sniper’s bullet on October 3, 1918.
Inside forward Eddie Latheron helped Blackburn Rovers win the Football League title in 1912 and 1914.
Latheron joined the team as a teenager and went on to set their single-season goal record. He scored a total of 94 goals in his 11 years with the club, at a rate of one goal per every 2.75 games.
Eddie served on the Front during World War I with the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. He passed away at the age of 29 in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Jimmy Speirs scored once for Scotland at the international level and racked up a total of 92 career goals at club level with teams like Rangers, Clyde and Leeds City.
Speirs enlisted in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders at the start of World War I, despite being officially exempted for having two young children.
The Scotsman won a Military Medal for bravery in May 1917, which earned him leave in Scotland during the summer of that year. He died in action the following fall.
Striker Sandy Turnbull played professional soccer for Manchester United and Manchester City in the early years of the 20th century.
The gifted forward scored a total of 143 goals in 230 Football League performances, including the winning goal against Bristol City in the 1909 FA Cup final. Turnbull won the FA Cup with both Manchester sides and won the league twice with United.
The Scottish striker enlisted in 1915, after having been banned from the Football League for being found guilty of match-fixing. Turnbull died in battle at Arras on May 3, 1917. He was posthumously reinstated to the League for his efforts during the war.
William Gerrish, affectionately known as Billy to his teammates, played for both Aston Villa and Preston North End in the years leading up to the First World War.
Gerrish scored on his debut against Arsenal and notched a hat trick against Chelsea a few weeks later. In his first season, Billy helped Villa win the first division Football League title.
Gerrish enlisted in the Footballers' Battalion Middlesex Regiment and died in battle at the western front on August 8, 1916.
Ferenc Puskás, one of the great footballers of all time, never actually went to war, but the unique nature of the team he played on bears mentioning in this article.
Puskás, along with his teammates, formed one of the great national teams of all time: the Mighty Magyars. In 85 matches with the Magyars, Puskás scored 84 goals. The team went undefeated for 32 games.
All told, Puskás scored 616 goals in 620 matches.
Here’s where the military connection comes in. The club team Puskás played for was absorbed into the Hungarian army team in 1949. All of the team’s players were given military rank and status.
Puskás eventually achieved the rank of major, even though he never actually served with the military. This, coupled with his lopsided gait, is how he earned his nickname: the Galloping Major.
England international and professional writer Charlie Buchan scored 209 goals in 370 appearances with Sunderland from 1911 – 1925, despite his tenure with the club being interrupted with wartime service.
In 1915, Buchan enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters. His service earned him the Military Medal and the rank of second lieutenant.
After the war, Buchan played professionally until 1928 with both Sunderland and Arsenal. He went on to be a BBC commentator and wrote one of the first soccer coaching manuals.
Welsh goalkeeper Fred Griffiths played professional soccer more than 15 years with clubs such as Blackpool, Millwall, Tottenham, West Ham and Preston North End. He also made two appearances at the international level for Wales.
One of the more phenomenal aspects of Griffiths’ life is that he joined the military after retiring from football when he was 42, a year too old to be legally conscripted. Griffiths achieved the rank of sergeant and died in battle at the age of 44 in 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Not to be confused with the noted 14th-century Scottish poet, Englishman John Barbour was a first-team regular at Preston North End along with Fred Griffiths and Charlie Buchan.
Along with his former teammates, Barbour enlisted and served in the British army during the First World War, and like Griffiths, he lost his life in the war. Barbour died on the western front in April of 1916.
Briton Tom Finney was among the first generation of players to see the benefits of the English youth development system.
As a youngster from Preston, Finney was brought in to play for an experimental youth development project initiated by Preston North End. He had worked his way from this youth team to top-flight soccer by the age of 17, when the war broke out.
Finney joined the British army and served in North Africa for the duration of the war. He was only 24 when the war ended. Finney rejoined Preston North End 1946 and played until 1960, scoring 187 goals in 433 matches.
Lancashire native Eric Robinson fell victim to a wartime tragedy.
Robison played on the Wolverhampton team that won the Football League War Cup in 1942. It was his second season with the team.
Later that same year, Robinson enlisted in the British reserve forces and drowned during a training exercise on the River Derwent.
Lev Yashin, aka The Black Widow, is widely considered the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game.
In 1941, Yashin served the Soviet war effort as a pre-teen when the Nazis invaded Russia. At the ripe old age of 12, Yashin went to work in a factory in his native Moscow, manufacturing weapons, vehicle parts and other wartime necessities.
While working for the factory, Yashin played for its football team, alongside all manner of people too young, too old or too damaged to go to war.
Yashin went on to put in 326 performances for FC Dynamo Moscow over a 20-year span and 78 for the Soviet national team.
Russian-born Soviet striker and manager Nikita Simonyan is known for many things.
He was one of the Soviet national team’s great forwards.
In 2011, Simonyan was awarded a medal by the president of Armenia for his efforts to create cross-cultural understanding and empathy between Russians and Armenians.
Simonyan was too young to actually serve as a soldier, but he put in work during the war years for the Soviet effort. As a teenager, Simonyan and his friends organized soccer games in their town.
When Soviet troops passed through the area, the striker and his soccer buddies would set up friendly matches for the military personnel. These matches increased camaraderie in units and eased the pressure of serving in war.
photo: Simonyan, left, with Yashin.
The Death Match
The story of Ukrainian giant Dynamo Kiev under German occupation is a strange and tragic one.
The Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe upended club football in all the countries that would become part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine included. Dynamo Kiev, one of the great teams in the region, was dismantled and its players forced to work in a bread factory for the German cause.
When the German command found out the footballers were working in the bread factory, they decided to bring in a number of top German players to defeat the Ukrainian footballers, raining humiliation on the heads of the natives.
To the astonishment of the Nazis, the emaciated laborers thrashed the German team 5-3, despite the referee being an SS officer.
In response to the humiliation, the Nazis rounded the Ukrainians, threw them in a concentration camp and tortured and executed them, though not before one of the players purportedly shouted “Red sport will triumph!”
A list of players executed follows.
The game is officially known as The Death Match.
photo: A poster advertising the Death Match.
Goalkeeper and team captain, executed in a concentration camp for thrashing the Nazis.
Trusevich is the one who supposedly shouted the bit about red sport.
One of the executed Ukrainian footballers.
One of the executed Ukrainian footballers.
One of the executed Ukrainian footballers.
Other Death Match Players
The fate of all the Ukrainians who played in The Death Match is unknown, but the names of the players remain etched in the memory of history.
They are: Mikhail Sviridovskiy, Fedor Tyutchev, Mikhail Putistin, Makar Goncharenko, Vladimir Balakin, Vasiliy Sukharev and Mikhail Melnik.
photo: A Death Match monument near the site of the game.
The British Physical Trainers
A number of top British footballers who served Britain during the Second World War did so as training instructors.
Because footballers stayed in top shape through the practice of daily training regimes, they were considered the best candidates for teaching soldiers to do the same.
Among the footballers who served as physical trainers during WWII are Joe Mercer, Tommy Lawton, Stan Cullis and Bill Wright.
photo: Stan Cullis
Ted Drake did the Arsenal faithful proud.
In his 167 league appearances for the Gunners, Drake scored 124 goals, despite being constantly plagued by injury. Think of him as an old-school Robin van Persie.
As with many players of his generation, the Second World War seriously impacted Drake’s professional footballing career. Though he played a number of friendly matches with Arsenal during the war, Drake served in the Royal Air Force and missed out on his most important soccer years.
Drake suffered a spinal injury during a match in 1945 that effectively ended his professional career. He went on to manage Hendon, Reading and Chelsea.
photo: Drake at right.
Eddie Hapgood served England in a number of capacities: as a professional soccer player for Arsenal, as a member of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and in the pre-war years, as a milkman.
Despite serving in the military during the war, Hapgood managed to play in over 100 friendly matches for Arsenal during the war years, matches designed to keep the morale of the British people intact by proving that a few bombing raids every now and then weren’t enough to stop Big Ben from ticking.
Hapgood’s career as a player ended before the war did, and so Eddie made the transition to managing Blackburn Rovers in 1944, apparently while still serving in the RAF. He went on to manage Watford and Bath City.
photo: Hapgood doesn't have time for your tomfoolery.
Jack Crayston played right-half at Arsenal alongside Ted Drake and Eddie Hapgood from 1934 to 1943.
Like Drake and Hapgood, Crayston enjoyed about five years of professional football in North London before the Second World War broke out. And also like Hapgood and Drake, Crayston joined the Royal Air Force and managed to play in over 100 friendly matches during the war.
All of this of course begs the question: Did these guys actually serve in the military, or were they part of a propaganda campaign aimed at getting young lads to join up in the image of their sporting heroes?
The Paper Man
Though he never served in war, the story of Matthias Sindelar, the Paper Man, is one intrinsically linked to the Second World War.
Sindelar was a member of the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s and is widely considered his country’s greatest player. To give you an idea of the Wunderteam’s formidable skills, they beat Germany, France and Hungary with a combined score of 23-2.
Known also as the Mozart of Football, the Paper Man played in a final exhibition match for Austria against Nazi Germany in 1938. The match was prearranged: It was to end in a draw.
However, Sindelar was a good friend to a number of Jews and had no sympathy for the Nazi cause. Sindelar scored in the last 20 minutes of the game, as did teammate Karl Sesta. After each goal, the Paper Man performed mocking celebrations in front of the Nazi high command’s booth.
Less than a year later, Sindelar was found dead in his apparent, a victim of an apparent gas leak. Debate abounds to this day as to whether or not that leak was an accident.
Widely considered one of the best British soccer players of the post-war era, Stan Mortensen wasn’t the most likely candidate for athletic stardom in the wake of the Second World War.
While serving as a wireless operator for the Royal Air Force, Mortensen endured a plane crash that killed everyone else on board. He sustained a number of injuries. The injuries allowed Mortensen to return to England in 1941, in which year he began playing for Blackpool.
As a center forward, Mortensen scored 197 goals in 317 performances for Blackpool between 1941 and 1955 and managed an impressive goal-to-game ratio for Arsenal as a guest player in the 1944-45 season: 25 to 19.
Frank Borghi is something of a cult hero for American soccer fans. The St. Louis native is the goalkeeper who held England scoreless in America’s miraculous victory in the 1950 World Cup.
Italian-American Borghi served as a field medic in World War II. Upon returning home, Borghi took up baseball and played professionally in the minor league for two seasons.
He began playing soccer as a means of staying fit in the winter. Coaches quickly found that his hand-eye coordination made him a great keeper.
Frank abandoned baseball and played soccer as an amateur while driving a hearse for a funeral home. His skills as an athlete led him to play for the United States in the 1950 and 1954 World Cups.
Interestingly, Borghi, who looks a little bit like Lou Ferrigno, was played by Scotsman Gerard Butler in the film The Game of Their Lives.
Joe Maca played professional soccer in his native Belgium before the Second World War and for the United States national team after the war. As with Borghi, he played on the 1950 World Cup team that defeated England.
Previous to the war, Maca played for Royal Cercle Sportif La Forestoise, a third-division team in Brussels. During the war, Maca served for the Belgian army and played on the army’s soccer team.
After the war, Maca immigrated to the United States. He played for Brooklyn Hispano in the American Soccer League. After the World Cup in 1950, Maca returned to Belgium, played for Royal White Star Athletic Club for one year and moved back to the United States for good.
photo: Maca, back row, second from left, with the 1950 US World Cup team.
One of the great French players of all time, Raymond Kopa was a creative attacking midfielder and striker.
Living in France during the Second World War didn’t provide Kopa with traditional wartime heroism provided to the English or Scottish players on this list, but he served the French nation during the war nonetheless.
Along with his father and brother, teenaged Kopa worked in the coal mines of northern France all through the war, providing fuel for France while under Nazi command. He even lost a finger in a mining accident.
After the war, Kopa tried out for professional football sides to avoid the early death most miners—including his father and brother—suffer.
The venture proved successful. Kopa went on to play for the same Real Madrid squad that featured the talents of Ferenc Puskás.
Not much is known about the life of Austrian soccer player Ernst Kunz.
Born in 1912, Kunz played for the Austrian national Wunderteam at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The team took home the silver medal at that tournament.
The defender served for Germany in the Second World War. He died in battle on August 21, 1944 in Lithuania.
Romanian footballer Petea Vâlcov is known for being one of the most successful strikers in the history of First League Romanian football, and the most prolific of the three brothers Vâlcov who played striker for Venus Bucureşti during the 1930s.
Along with his brothers Colea and Volodea, Vâlcov formed the most dangerous part of a famed striking triumvirate. He also scored four goals in seven matches at the international level for Romania.
Vâlcov served in the Romanian army during the Second World War and died fighting the Soviets at Kalmyk Steppe in November of 1943.
photo: Petea Vâlcov, third from left, with the eyebrows.
Austrian midfielder Karl Wahlmüller competed on the same silver medal-winning national team as Ernst Kunz at the ’36 Olympics.
Like Kunz, not a lot is known about Wahlmüller’s life—only that he died in battle on February 16, 1944 in Estonia, a nation that served as an important battle ground between the Nazis and Soviets.
According to estimates, approximately 25 percent of Estonians died during the war, as did countless troops on both sides of the divide.
Palestinian international Ayman Alkurd didn’t serve during wartime, but he deserves to be remembered as a soccer player who died as a result of the same ethnically and racially motivated systemic aggression that causes wars.
Alkurd was born in 1975 and played for the Palestine national team throughout his professional career. He died at the age of 34, in 2009, during an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza strip.
Other Palestinian internationals killed during the strike include Wajeh Moshtahe and Shadi Sbakhe.
One more Scotsman, for the folks at home.
Angus Douglas—and can we pause here for a minute to acknowledge just how brutally Scottish that name is?—played for Chelsea and Newcastle United, as well as the Scottish national team.
Douglas served for Britain in the First World War and survived, only to fall victim to the flu pandemic of 1918. He died just before his 30th birthday.