“Am I so round with you as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.”
– William Shakespeare
Most people have a sense of football being around for some time now. Many fans vaguely assume that England is considered the original home of the professional game, and that the FA was founded some time before the last century (1863) before there was television, radio and millions of hack-football writers polluting the Ethernet with their noxious observations. The most likely reason people view football in this context is because many of the clubs we follow were also established at this time. Notts County was the first in 1862. Clubs such as Forest, Wrexham, and Sheffield Wednesday were founded throughout the 1860s. Manchester United, Everton and West Brom in 1878 began an acceleration that would include Liverpool FC in 1892 and Chelsea in 1905 and many of the rest of the famous clubs we know in between. This is why we have a notion that football was born around the time when people said prunes instead of cheese when posing for photographs and selfies were something of an impossible dream. However, just like the internal gestation period of the Alpine Salamander, football has been developing a lot longer than we think.
Where to begin? Asking the question “what is football?” might be a good place to start. If you’re rolling your eyes because it’s bleedin’ obvious what football is, don’t click that mouse over to the next read just yet. The Chinese had a game called cuju as far back as 450 BC. Cuju, which literally translates into kick-ball, involved kicking a feather-stuffed leather ball through a hole in a piece of silk cloth that was strung between two 30-foot poles. The game spread into south-east Asia too and within a short thousand years or so had developed into a sport in which professional athletes made a comfortable living, and the old ball had been replaced by the new and improved air-filled model. FIFA has even been known to acknowledge China as the birthplace of its game, but was it really football?
Whatever about the ancient Chinese version, the Japanese may have had a football but they didn’t play the beautiful game. They discarded the barbaric format of two teams at war and instead played what could only be described a game of keepy-uppies, formally known as solos. Kemari involved several people standing in a circle and kicking the ball to each other, trying not to let the ball drop to the ground. It was first recorded around 600AD and remained in practice until the mid-1800s, just before real football came to town.
Not to be outdone by our oriental counterparts, the ancient Roman intellectual Cicero once recorded a fatality by football. Admittedly the victim was having a shave in a barber shop when the ball came flying through the glassless window, causing the barber’s unfortunate slip of the wrist, but we can’t blame footy for that either. No, the Roman game of pheninda was apparently more akin to rugby, that thugs game played by gentleman, than our beloved soccer, a gentlemen’s’ game played by thugs.
That fact that rugby men will often refer to their oval malformation as the football, and skilful rugby players as footballers, is also interesting in the context of “what is football?”. This is because you would naturally assume that football is named as such because, for the most part, the game is played with the feet and the handling of the ball is forbidden. However there is some evidence to suggest that football people have always been looked down upon by the well-to-do, quite literally in fact. Medieval nobility liked to make their sporting pursuits on horseback of course; hunting, hawking, jousting and early forms of polo were enjoyed by the aristocratic elite. The peasants couldn’t afford horses to work or eat, let alone practice sports on, so they had to play their games on foot. When you’re up on horseback looking down on the hoi-poly scratching around in the dirt after their grubby ball, be it round or oval, for kicking or for throwing, they all look the same. All foot-based sports then were lumped into the category of football, while jousting went from strength to strength only in some other far more exciting parallel universe.
Variations on foot / ball sports are common in many cultures all around the globe. In 1586 an English explorer named John Davis played a form of football with Eskimo people in Greenland. In 1610 a settler by the name of William Strachey observed a game played by Native Americans, called Pahsaheman in Virginia, America. In Victoria, Australia, Aborigines played Marn Grook, translated as ball game. There is a record form 1841 in which a witness describes how a player would “drop kick a ball made from the skin of a possum and how other players leap into the air in order to catch it.” , which of course is reminiscent of our own Gaelic version. Some historians argue that the Aztec and the Incas played a form of football but they threw the ball through a hoop so should instead fall into the basketball category.
We must return to Europe again in search for the spawn-place of football, and England in particular. Mob-Football would sweep though the towns and villages with abandon come the annual Shrovetide (carnival) week. The boundaries were two geographical points, such as a church or local landmark, one from each opposing village. The numbers on each team were not limited and depended solely on the population of your area. There were often hundreds of players participating. An inflated pig’s bladder was thrown in between them. They would then attempt to slowly move the ball into the opposing team’s home town, knocking seven shades of shite and muck and manure out of each other in the process.
The actual use of the word football emerged in the 14th century when the Lord Mayor of London tried to ban “hustling over large foot balls in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid”. A few years later in 1363 the King of England issued a decree banning “…handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games”. This illustrates how the game has now been distinguished from other ball games for the first time. Then, in the 15th century the beautiful game is undisputedly described for the very first time. You have to imagine the world six hundred years ago, the land, the towns, the sights and smells, the food and the clothes, to really appreciate the imagery in this account of how “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” And modern football, at least the tunics for goalposts type, was born.
After that it was all just a matter of tidying up the rules. It was in the public schools of England that football was taken away from the mob to be sanitised and codified, to have the kicking game segregated from the running/catching game, and have the homicidal violence diluted. In the 16th century words like, sides, field positions, and judge over the parties (referee) entered the footballing lexicon. In the 17th century the notions of keeping goal and equally numbered teams emerged. In 1660 Francis Willoughby’s Book of Games describes the first written rule of football. It states that a player “must not strike [an opponent’s leg] higher than the ball”, something Roy Keane neglected to recall of some years later when trying to remove the ball, and a knee cap, from Alfe Inge Haaland.
While rugby flourished in the posher parts of England, it wasn’t until 26th October 1863 that the game of the working classes was finally formalised. At the Freemason’s Tavern, Great Queen Street, London, representatives of several football clubs in the urban area met for the inaugural meeting of The Football Association (FA), and a terrible beauty was born. Boundaries were set, in order to keep the kids from playing on the streets. Rules were established to prevent serious injury. Clubs sprang up all over the country, and then it went international. The spread of the game was unprecedented. Within ten years of the formation of the FA, the rules and regulations these amateurs had put in place were being abided by in countries as far afield as Russia, in front of crowds of up to 30,000 spectators. Back in England the masses, with new found recreation time on their hands began to descend on games in their thousands. International fixtures between European teams became so popular that an international governing body had to be established for the good of the game. However, we ended up with UEFA and FIFA. The rest, as they say, is history.
by Paul Cahill