A History Of Football

With all that has been happening over the last few weeks on this sport, I thought I might add a little bit of history into it. So this blog might be slightly longer than usual, but there is more to the sport than I certainly realised! In fact the name ‘Football’ actually refers to a family of team sports that involve, to varying degrees, kicking a ball to score a goal. Unqualified, the word football normally means the form of football that is the most popular where the word is used. Sports commonly called ‘football’ include Association football (known mainly as ‘soccer’ in North America and Australia), gridiron football (specifically American or Canadian football), Australian rules football, rugby union, rugby league and Gaelic football. These various forms of football share to varying extent common origins and therefore share basic ‘football codes’. There are a number of references to traditional, ancient, or prehistoric ball games played in many different parts of the world. Contemporary codes of football can be traced back to the codification of these games at English public schools during the 19th century. The expansion and cultural influence of the British Empire allowed these rules of football to spread to areas of British influence outside the directly controlled Empire and by the end of the 19th century, distinct regional codes were already developing. Gaelic football, for example, deliberately incorporated the rules of local traditional football games in order to maintain their heritage. In 1888, The Football League was founded in England, becoming the first of many professional football associations. During the 20th century, several of the various kinds of football grew to become some of the most popular team sports in the world. The various codes of football share certain common elements and can be grouped into two main classes of football: ‘carrying’ codes like American football, Canadian football, Australian football, rugby union and rugby league, where the ball is moved about the field whilst being held in the hands or thrown, and ‘kicking’ codes such as Association football and Gaelic football, where the ball is moved primarily with the feet, and where handling is strictly limited. Common rules among the sports include two ‘teams’ of usually between 11 and 18 players, though there are some variations that have fewer players (five or more per team) which are also popular. There is usually a clearly defined area in which to play the game, scoring either goals or ‘points’ by moving the ball to an opposing team’s end of the field and either into a goal area, or over a line, goals or points resulting from players putting the ball between two goalposts and the goal or line being ‘defended’ by the opposing team. Also players only use their body to move the ball, i.e. no additional equipment such as bats or sticks are used. In all codes, common skills include passing, tackling, the evasion of tackles, catching and kicking. In most codes, there are rules restricting the movement of players including ‘offside’, and players scoring a goal must put the ball either under or over a crossbar between the goalposts. There are conflicting explanations of the origin of the word ‘football’. It is widely assumed that the word or phrase ‘foot ball’ refers to the action of the foot kicking a ball. There is an alternative explanation, which is that football originally referred to a variety of games in medieval Europe which were played ‘on foot’. There is no conclusive evidence for either explanation.

A painting depicting Emperor Taizu of Song playing ‘cuju’, or Chinese football with his prime minister Zhao Pu and other ministers, by the Yuan dynasty artist Qian Xuan (1235–1305)

The Chinese competitive game ‘cuju’ resembles modern association football or soccer and descriptions appear in a military manual dated to the second and third centuries BC. It existed during the Han dynasty and possibly the Qin dynasty, in the second and third centuries BC. The Japanese version of ‘cuju’ is ‘kemari’ and was developed during the Asuka period and this is known to have been played within the Japanese imperial court in Kyoto from about 600AD. In ‘kemari’, several people stand in a circle and kick a ball to each other, trying not to let the ball drop to the ground, much like ‘keepie uppie’!

An ancient Roman tombstone of a boy with a ‘Harpastum’ ball from Tilurium (modern Sinj, Croatia)

The Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have played many ball games, some of which involved the use of the feet. The Roman game ‘harpastum’ is believed to have been adapted from a Greek team game known as ‘Episkyros’ or ‘Phaininda’. These games appear to have resembled rugby football. Roman ball games already knew the air-filled ball, the follis. ‘Episkyros’ is recognised as an early form of football by FIFA. In fact there are a number of references to traditional, ancient or prehistoric ball games, played by indigenous peoples in many different parts of the world. For example, in 1586, men from a ship commanded by an English explorer named John Davis went ashore to play a form of football with the Inuit in Greenland. There are later accounts of an Inuit game played on ice, called ‘Aqsaqtuk’, where each match began with two teams facing each other in parallel lines, before attempting to kick the ball through each other team’s line and then at a goal. In 1610, William Strachey, a colonist at Jamestown, Virginia recorded a game played by Native Americans called ‘Pahsaheman’. Northeastern American Indians, especially the Iroquois Confederation, played a game which made use of net racquets to throw and catch a small ball. However, although it is a ball-goal foot game, lacrosse (as its modern descendant is called) is likewise not usually classed as a form of football. On the Australian continent, several tribes there played kicking and catching games with stuffed balls which have been generalised by historians as ‘game ball’. The earliest historical account is an anecdote from the 1878 book by Robert Brough-Smyth in ‘The Aborigines of Victoria’, where a man is quoted as saying, in about 1841 in Victoria, Australia that he had witnessed Aboriginal people playing the game, which describes how the foremost player will drop kick a ball made from the skin of a possum and how other players leap into the air in order to catch it.” Some historians have theorised that this was one of the origins of Australian rules football. These games and others may well go far back into antiquity, however the main sources of modern football codes appear to lie in western Europe, especially England.

The Middle Ages saw a huge rise in popularity of annual Shrovetide football matches throughout Europe, particularly in England. An early reference to a ball game played in Britain comes from the 9th-century Historia Brittonum which describes ‘a party of boys playing at ball’.

An illustration of so-called ‘mob football’

The early forms of football played in England, sometimes referred to as ‘mob football’, would be played in towns or between neighbouring villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams who would clash ‘en masse’, struggling to move an item, such as inflated animal’s bladder to particular geographical points, such as their opponents’ church, with play taking place in the open space between neighbouring parishes. The game was played primarily during significant religious festivals, such as Shrovetide, Christmas, or Easter, with Shrovetide games surviving into the modern era in a number of English towns. The first detailed description of what was almost certainly football in England was given by William FitzStephen in about 1174–1183. He described the activities of London youths during the annual festival of Shrove Tuesday: “After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.” Most of the very early references to the game speak simply of “ball play” or “playing at ball”. This reinforces the idea that the games played at the time did not necessarily involve a ball being kicked. An early reference to a ball game that was probably football comes from 1280 at Ulgham, Northumberland, England: “Henry, while playing at ball, ran against David”. Football was played in Ireland in 1308, with a documented reference to John McCrocan, a spectator at a ‘football game’ at Newcastle, County Down being charged with accidentally stabbing a player named William Bernard. Another reference to a football game comes in 1321 at Shouldham, Norfolk, England: “during the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his ran against him and wounded himself”. In 1314, Nicholas de Farndone, Lord Mayor of the City of London issued a decree banning football in French which was used by the English upper classes at the time. A translation reads: “Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls ‘rageries de grosses pelotes de pee’ in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.” This is the earliest reference to football. In 1363, King Edward III of England issued a proclamation banning “handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games”, showing that ‘football’ – whatever its exact form in this case – was being differentiated from games involving other parts of the body, such as handball. A game known as ‘football’ was played in Scotland as early as the 15th century, though it was prohibited by the Football Act 1424 and although the law fell into disuse it was not repealed until 1906! There is evidence for schoolboys playing a ‘football’ ball game in Aberdeen in 1633 (some references cite 1636) which is notable as an early allusion to what some have considered to be passing the ball. The word ‘pass’ in the most recent translation is derived from ‘huc percute’ (strike it here) and later ‘repercute pilam’ (strike the ball again) in the original Latin. It is not certain that the ball was being struck between members of the same team. The original word translated as ‘goal’ is ‘metum’, literally meaning the ‘pillar at each end of the circus course’ in a Roman chariot race. There is a reference to ‘get hold of the ball before [another player] does’ (Praeripe illi pilam si possis agere) suggesting that handling of the ball was allowed. One sentence states in the original 1930 translation ‘Throw yourself against him’ (Age, objice te illi). King Henry IV of England also presented one of the earliest documented uses of the English word ‘football’, in 1409, when he issued a proclamation forbidding the levying of money for ‘foteball’. There is also an account in Latin from the end of the 15th century of football being played at Caunton, Nottinghamshire. This is the first description of a ‘kicking game’ and the first description of dribbling, where ’the game at which they had met for common recreation is called by some the foot-ball game. It is one in which young men, in country sport, propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air but by striking it and rolling it along the ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet, kicking in opposite directions.’ The chronicler gives the earliest reference to a football pitch, stating that: ‘the boundaries have been marked and the game had started.’

Oldest known painting of foot-ball in Scotland, by Alexander Carse, c. 1810

There have been many attempts to ban football, from the Middle Ages through to the modern day. The first such law was passed in England in 1314, it was followed by more than 30 in England alone between 1314 and 1667. Women were banned from playing at English and Scottish Football League grounds in 1921, a ban that was only lifted in the 1970s. Female footballers still face similar problems in some parts of the world. Whilst football continued to be played in various forms throughout Britain, its public schools (equivalent to private schools in other countries) are widely credited with four key achievements in the creation of modern football codes. First of all, the evidence suggests that they were important in taking football away from its ‘mob’ form and turning it into an organised team sport. Second, many early descriptions of football and references to it were recorded by people who had studied at these schools. Third, it was teachers, students, and former students from these schools who first codified football games, to enable matches to be played between schools. Finally, it was at English public schools that the division between ‘kicking’ and ‘running’ (or “carrying”) games first became clear. The earliest evidence that games resembling football were being played at English public schools, mainly attended by boys from the upper, upper-middle and professional classes, comes from the ‘Vulgaria’ by William Herman in 1519. Herman had been headmaster at Eton and Winchester colleges and his Latin textbook includes a translation exercise with the phrase “We wyll playe with a ball full of wynde”. Richard Mulcaster, a student at Eton College in the early 16th century and later headmaster at other English schools, has been described as “the greatest sixteenth Century advocate of football”. Among his contributions are the earliest evidence of organised team football and his writings refer to teams (‘sides’ and ‘parties’), positions (‘standings’), a referee (‘judge over the parties’) and a coach (‘trayning maister’). Mulcaster’s ‘footeball’ had evolved from the disordered and violent forms of traditional football into: “some smaller number with such overlooking, sorted into sides and standings, not meeting with their bodies so boisterously to trie their strength: nor shouldring or shuffing one an other so barbarously … may use footeball for as much good to the body, by the chiefe use of the legges.” In 1633, David Wedderburn, a teacher from Aberdeen, mentioned elements of modern football games in a short Latin textbook called ‘Vocabula’. Wedderburn refers to what has been translated into modern English as ‘keeping goal’ and makes an allusion to passing the ball (‘strike it here’). There is a reference to ‘get hold of the ball’, suggesting that some handling was allowed. It is clear that the tackles allowed included the charging and holding of opposing players (‘drive that man back’). English public schools were the first to codify football games. In particular, they devised the first ‘offside’ rules, during the late 18th century. In the earliest manifestations of these rules, players were “off their side” if they simply stood between the ball and the goal which was their objective. Players were not allowed to pass the ball forward, either by foot or by hand. They could only dribble with their feet, or advance the ball in a scrum or similar formation. However, offside laws began to diverge and develop differently at each school, as is shown by the rules of football from Winchester, Rugby, Harrow and Cheltenham, between 1810 and 1850. The first known codes – in the sense of a set of rules – were those of Eton in 1815 and Aldenham in 1825.

The boom in rail transport in Britain during the 1840s meant that people were able to travel further and with less inconvenience than they ever had before. Inter-school sporting competitions became possible. However, it was difficult for schools to play each other at football, as each school played by its own rules. The solution to this problem was usually that the match be divided into two halves, one half played by the rules of the host ‘home’ school, and the other half by the visiting ‘away’ school. The modern rules of many football codes were formulated during the mid or late 19th century. This also applies to other sports such as lawn bowls, lawn tennis, etc. The major impetus for this was the patenting of the world’s first lawnmower in 1830! This allowed for the preparation of modern ovals, playing fields, pitches and grass courts. Public schools’ dominance of sports in the UK began to wane after the Factory Act of 1850, which significantly increased the recreation time available to working class children. Before 1850, many British children had to work six days a week, for more than twelve hours a day. From 1850, they could not work before 6am (7am in winter) or after 6pm on weekdays (7pm in winter) and on Saturdays they had to cease work at 2pm. These changes meant that working class children had more time for games, including various forms of football. During the nineteenth century, several codifications of the rules of football were made at the University of Cambridge, in order to enable students from different public schools to play each other. The Cambridge Rules of 1863 influenced the decision of Football Association to ban Rugby-style carrying of the ball in its own first set of laws. By the late 1850s, many football clubs had been formed throughout the English-speaking world, to play various codes of football. Sheffield Football Club, founded in 1857 was later recognised as the world’s oldest club playing association football. However, the club initially played its own code of football. The code was largely independent of the public school rules, the most significant difference being the lack of an ‘offside’ rule. This code was responsible for many innovations that later spread to association football and included free kicks, corner kicks, handball, throw-ins and the crossbar. By the 1870s they became the dominant code in the north and midlands of England. At this time a series of rule changes by both the London and Sheffield Associations gradually eroded the differences between the two games until the adoption of a common code in 1877. So the need for a single body to oversee association football had become apparent by the beginning of the 20th century, with the increasing popularity of international fixtures. The English Football Association had chaired many discussions on setting up an international body, but was perceived as making no progress. It fell to associations from seven other European countries: France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, to form an international association. The ‘Fédération Internationale de Football Association’ (FIFA) was founded in Paris on 21 May 1904. Its first president was Robert Guérin. The French name and acronym has remained, even outside French-speaking countries. Several of the football codes are the most popular team sports in the world. Globally, association football is played by over 250 million players in over 200 nations and has the highest television audience in sport, making it the most popular in the world. Will we ever know just how many people watched the games over the last few weeks…

This week….
Some of you may have seen this before, but it still makes me smile. When we know the size of the small computer memory available now in Terabytes (Tb), compared to the one pictured below, which is just 5 Megabytes (Mb) in size and then consider there are in fact 1,000,000 Mb in just 1 Tb… The 4Tb external storage drive I have now is just 4 inches long, 3 inches wide and less than one inch thick!

Loading 5MB of memory into a Pan-Am Jet, in 1956.

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