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History / Background of Soccer


More than 2000 Years of Football
The colourful history of the fascinating game of Soccer:

By Dr. Wilfried Gerhardt
This article was first published in April 1979 in FIFA News. The author was the former press officer for the German Football Association. Selected paragraphs have been updated in the interim.



The contemporary history of football spans almost 150 years. It all began in 1863 in England, when rugby football and association football branched off on their different courses and the world's first football association was founded - The Football Association in England. Both forms of football stemmed from a common root and both have a long and intricately branched ancestral tree. Their early history reveals at least half a dozen different games, varying to different degrees and to which the historical development of football is related and has actually been traced back. Whether this can be justified in some instances is disputable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that playing a ball with the feet has been going on for thousands of years and there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is an aberration of the more "natural" form of playing a ball with the hands.

On the contrary, apart from the absolute necessity to employ the legs and feet in such a tough bodily tussle for the ball, often without any laws for protection, it was no doubt recognised right at the outset that the art of controlling the ball with the feet was extremely difficult and, as such, it required special technique and talent. The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise of precisely this skilful technique dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. in China. A military manual dating from the period of the Han Dynasty includes among the physical education exercises, the "Tsu'Chu". This consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30 - 40 cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes - a feat which obviously demanded great skill and excellent technique. A variation of this exercise also existed, whereby the player was not permitted to aim at his target unimpeded, but had to use his feet, chest, back and shoulders whilst trying to withstand the attacks of his opponents. Use of the hands was not permitted. The ball artistry of today's top players is therefore not quite as new as some people may assume.

Another form of the game, also originating from the Far East, was the Japanese Kemari, which dates from about 500 to 600 years later and is still played today. This is a type of circular football game, far less spectacular, but, for that reason, a 'more dignified and ceremonious experience, requiring certain skills, but not competitive ' in the way the Chinese game was, nor is there the slightest sign of struggle for possession of the ball. The players had to pass the ball to each other, in a relatively small space, trying not to let it touch the ground.

The Greek game "episkyros", relatively little of which has been handed down, was much livelier, as was the Roman game "Harpastum". The latter was played with a smaller ball with two teams contesting the game on a rectangular field marked by boundary lines and a centre-line. The object was to get the ball over the opponents' boundary lines. The ball was passed between players and trickery was the order of the day. Each team member had his own specific tactical assignment and the spectators took a vociferous interest in the proceedings and the score.

The role of the feet in this game was so small as scarcely to be of consequence. This game remained popular for 700 or 800 years, but, although the Romans took it to England with them, it is doubtful whether it can be considered as a forerunner of contemporary football. The same applies for hurling, a popular game with the Celtic population, which is played to this very day in Cornwall and Ireland. It is possible that influences were asserted, but it is certain that the decisive development of the game of football with which we are now familiar took place in England and Scotland.

The game that flourished in the British Isles from the 8th to the 19th centuries had a considerable variety of local and regional versions - which were subsequently smoothed down and smartened up to form the present day sports of association football and rugby football. They were substantially different from all the previously known forms - more disorganised, more violent, more spontaneous and usually played by an indefinite number of players. Frequently, the games took the form of a heated contest between whole village communities or townships - through streets, village squares, across fields, hedges, fences and streams. Kicking was allowed, as in fact was almost everything else. However, in some of these games kicking was out of the question due to the size and weight of the ball being used. In such cases, kicking was instead employed to fell opponents. Incidentally, it was not until nine years after the football rules had been established for the first time in 1863 that the size and weight of the ball were finally standardised. Up to that time, agreement on this point had usually been reached by the parties concerned when they were arranging the match, as was the case for the game between London and Sheffield in 1866. This match was also the first where the duration of the game was prearranged for one and a half hours.

Shrovetide football, as it was called, belonged in the "mob football" category, where the number of players was unlimited and the rules were fairly vague (for example, according to an ancient handbook from Workington in England, any means could be employed to get the ball to its target with the exception of murder and manslaughter). Shrovetide football is still played today on Shrove Tuesday in some areas, for example, Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Needless to say, it is no longer so riotous as it used to be, nor are such extensive casualties suffered as was probably the case centuries ago.

This game is reputedly Anglo-Saxon in origin and there are many legends concerning its first appearance. For example, in both Kingston-on-Thames and Chester, the story goes that the game was played for the very first time with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince. In Derby, it is said to have originated far earlier, in the 3rd century, during the victory celebrations that followed a battle against the Romans.

Despite the legends of Kingston and Chester, certain facts appear to contradict the Anglo-Saxon theory. Namely that there is no evidence of it having been played at this time in Saxon areas or on the continent, nor is the game mentioned in early Anglo-Saxon literature. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the only trace found of any such ball game comes from a Celtic source.

One other possible theory regarding its origin is that when the aforementioned "mob football" was being played in the British Isles in the early centuries A.D., a very similar game was thriving in France, particularly in Normandy and Brittany. So it is quite feasible that the Normans brought this form of the game to England with them. All these theories produce a picture quite bewildering in its complexity - far more complex than the simple rules that governed this form of the game, if we dare even to call them rules.

Quite apart from man's natural impulse to demonstrate his strength and skill, even in this chaotic and turbulent fashion, it is certain that in many cases, pagan customs, especially fertility rites, played a major role. The ball symbolised the sun, which had to be conquered in order to secure a bountiful harvest. The ball had to be propelled around, or across, a field so that the crops would flourish and the attacks of the opponents had to be warded off.

A similar significance was attached to the games between married men and bachelors that prevailed for centuries in some parts of England, and, likewise, to the famous game between married and unmarried women in the Scottish town of Inveresk at the end of the 17th century which, perhaps by design, was regularly won by the married women. Women's football is obviously not so new as some people think.

Scholars might have conflicting views on the origins of the game and the influences that certain cults may have had on its evolution, but one thing is incontestable: football has flourished for over a thousand years in diverse rudimentary forms, in the very region which we describe as its home, England and the British Isles. The chain of prohibitions and censures, sometimes harsh, sometimes mild, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt what tremendous enthusiasm there was for football, even though it was so often frowned upon by the authorities. The repeated unsuccessful intervention of the authorities and high offices of the land shows how powerless they were to restrict it, in spite of their condemnation and threats of severe punishment.

As long ago as 1314 the Lord Mayor of London saw fit to issue a proclamation forbidding football within the city due to the rumpus it usually caused. Infringement of this law meant imprisonment. King Edward III passed extremely harsh measures in 1331 to suppress football, which was regarded as a public nuisance. At the same time, similar measures were also introduced in France.

During the 100 years' war between England and France from 1338 to 1453 the court was also unfavourably disposed towards football, albeit for different reasons. Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V made football punishable by law because the well-loved recreation prevented their subjects from practising more useful military disciplines, particularly archery, which played an important and valuable role in the English army at that time.

All the Scottish kings of the 15th Century also deemed it necessary to censure and prohibit football. Particularly famous amongst these was the decree proclaimed by the Parliament convened by James I in 1424: "That na man play at the Fute-ball". None of these efforts had much effect. The popularity of the game amongst the people and their obvious delight in the rough and tumble for the ball went far too deep to be uprooted.

The passion for football was particularly exuberant in Elizabethan times. An influence that most likely played a part in intensifying the native popularity for the game came from Renaissance Italy, particularly from Florence, but also from Venice and other cities that had produced their own brand of football known as "Calcio". lt was certainly more organised than the English equivalent and was played by teams dressed in coloured livery at the important gala events held on certain holidays in Florence. It was a truly splendid spectacle. In England the game was still as rough and ungracious and lacking in refinement as ever, but it did at this time find a prominent supporter who commended if for other reasons when he saw the simple joy of the players romping after the ball. This supporter was Richard Mulcaster, the great pedagogue, head of the famous schools of Merchant Taylor's and St. Paul's. He pointed out that the game had positive educational value and it promoted health and strength. He claimed that all that was needed was to refine it a little and give it better manners. His notion was that the game would benefit most if the number of participants in each team were limited and, more importantly, there were a stricter referee.

Resentment of football up to this time had been mainly for practical reasons. The game had been regarded as a public disturbance that resulted in damage to property, for example, in Manchester in 1608, football was banned again because so many windows had been smashed.

In the course of the 16th century a quite new type of attack was launched against football. With the spread of Puritanism, the cry went up against "frivolous" amusements, and sport happened to be classified as such, football in particular. The main objection was that it supposedly constituted a violation of peace on the Sabbath. Similar attacks were made against the theatre, which strait-laced Puritans regarded as a source of idleness and iniquity. This laid the foundations for the entertainment ban on English Sundays, which would later become a permanent feature during the Commonwealth and Puritanical eras (even though it is said that Oliver Cromwell himself was a keen footballer in his youth). From then on football on Sundays was taboo. It remained so for some 300 years, until the ban was lifted once again, at first unofficially and ultimately with the formal consent of The Football Association, albeit on a rather small scale.

However, none of these obstacles could eradicate football. Take Derby as an example. Between 1731 and 1841, the town's authorities made continual attempts to ban football from the streets. In the end, they had to resort to riot laws before there was any effect at all.

All told there was scarcely any progress at all in the development of football for hundreds of years. But, although the game was persistently forbidden for 500 years, it was never completely suppressed. As a consequence, it remained essentially rough, violent and disorganised. A change did not come about until the beginning of the 19th century when school football became the custom, particularly in the famous public schools. This was the turning point. In this new environment, it was possible to make innovations and refinements to the game.

The rules were still relatively free and easy as there was still no standard, organised form of the game. Each school in fact developed its own adaptation and, at times, these varied considerably. The traditional aspects of the game remained but innovations depended for the most part on the playing ground available. If use had to be made of a paved school playground, surrounded by a brick wall, then there was simply not enough space for the old hurly-burly mob football. Circumstances such as these made schools like Charterhouse, Westminster, Eton and Harrow give birth to the type of game in which more depended on the players' dribbling virtuosity than the robust energy required in a scrum. On the other hand, schools such as Cheltenham and Rugby were more inclined towards the more rugged game in which the ball could be touched with the hands or even carried. All these early styles were given a great boost when it was recognised in educational circles that football was not merely an excuse to indulge in a childish romp, but could actually be beneficial educationally. What is more it was accepted that it also constituted a useful distraction from less desirable occupations, such as heavy drinking and gambling. A new attitude began to permeate the game, eventually leading to a "games cult" in public schools. This materialised when it was observed how well the team game served to encourage such fine qualities as loyalty, selflessness, cooperation, subordination and deference to the team spirit. Games became an integral part of the school curriculum and participation in football became compulsory. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the head of Rugby school, made further advances in this direction, when in 1846 in Rugby the first truly standardised rules for an organised game were laid down. These were in any event quite rough enough, for example, they permitted kicking an opponent's legs below the knees, with the reserve that he should not be held still whilst his shins were being worked on. Handling the ball was also allowed and ever since the memorable occasion in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, to the amazement of his own team and his opponents, made a run with the ball tucked under his arm, carrying the ball has been permitted. Many schools followed suit and adopted the rules laid down in Rugby, others, such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester, rejected this form of football, and gave preference to kicking the ball and carrying it was forbidden. Charterhouse and Westminster were also against handling the ball. However, they did not isolate their style as some schools did, instead they formed a nucleus from which this style of game began to spread.

Finally, in 1863, developments reached a climax. At Cambridge University, where in 1848 attempts had already been made by former pupils from the various schools to find a common denominator for all the different adaptations of the game, a fresh initiative began to establish some uniform standards and rules that would be accepted by everyone. It was at this point that the majority spoke out against such rough customs as tripping, shin-kicking and so on. As it happened, the majority also expressed disapproval at carrying the ball. It was this that caused the Rugby group to withdraw. They would probably have agreed to refrain from shin-kicking, which was in fact later banned in the Rugby regulations, but they were reluctant to relinquish carrying the ball.

This Cambridge action was an endeavour to sort out the utter confusion surrounding the rules. The decisive initiative, however, was taken after a series of meetings organised at the end of the same year (1863) in London. On 26 October 1863, eleven London clubs and schools sent their representatives to the Freemason's Tavern. These representatives were intent on clarifying the muddle by establishing a set of fundamental rules, acceptable to all parties, to govern the matches played amongst them. This meeting marked the birth of The Football Association. The eternal dispute concerning shin-kicking, tripping and carrying the ball was discussed thoroughly at this and consecutive meetings until eventually on 8 December the die-hard exponents of the Rugby style took their final leave. They were in the minority anyway. They wanted no part in a game that forbade tripping, shin-kicking and carrying the ball. A stage had been reached where the ideals were no longer compatible. On 8 December 1863, football and rugby finally split. Their separation became totally irreconcilable six years hence when a provision was included in the football rules forbidding any handling of the ball (not only carrying it).

Only eight years after its foundation, The Football Association already had 50 member clubs. The first football competition in the world was started in the same year - the FA Cup, which preceded the League Championship by 17 years.

International matches were being staged in Great Britain before football had hardly been heard of in Europe. The first was played in 1872 and was contested by England and Scotland. This sudden boom of organised football accompanied by staggering crowds of spectators brought with it certain problems with which other countries were not confronted until much later on. Professionalism was one of them. The first moves in this direction came in 1879, when Darwin, a small Lancashire club, twice managed to draw against the supposedly invincible Old Etonians in the FA Cup, before the famous team of London amateurs finally scraped through to win at the third attempt. Two Darwin players, the Scots John Love and Fergus Suter, are reported as being the first players ever to receive remuneration for their football talent. This practice grew rapidly and the Football Association found itself obliged to legalise professionalism as early as 1885. This development predated the formation of any national association outside of Great Britain (namely, in the Netherlands and Denmark) by exactly four years.

After the English Football Association, the next oldest are the Scottish FA (1873), the FA of Wales (1875) and the Irish FA (1880). Strictly speaking, at the time of the first international match, England had no other partner association against which to play. When Scotland played England in Glasgow on 30 November 1872, the Scottish FA did not even exist - it was not founded for another three months. The team England played that day was actually the oldest Scottish club team, Queen's Park.

The spread of football outside of Great Britain, mainly due to the British influence abroad, started slow, but it soon gathered momentum and spread rapidly to all parts of the world. The next countries to form football associations after the Netherlands and Denmark in 1889 were New Zealand (1891), Argentina (1893), Chile (1895), Switzerland, Belgium (1895), Italy (1898), Germany, Uruguay (both in 1900), Hungary (1901) and Finland (1907). When FIFA was founded in Paris in May 1904 it had seven founder members: France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain (represented by the Madrid FC), Sweden and Switzerland. The German Football Federation cabled its intention to join on the same day.

This international football community grew steadily, although it sometimes met with obstacles and setbacks. In 1912, 20 national associations were already affiliated to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). By 1925, the number had increased to 39, in 1930 - the year of the first World Cup - it was 46, in 1938, 52 and in 1950, after the interval caused by the Second World War, the number had reached 68. Today, FIFA comprises 204 member associations in the four corners of the globe. They comprise around 305,000 clubs - over 223,000 of which in Europe alone -, and more than 1,548,000 teams with around 246 million people who regularly play football