The contemporary history of the world’s favourite game spans more than 100 years. It all began in 1863 in England, when rugby football and association football branched off on their different courses and the Football Association in England was formed – becoming the sport’s first governing body.
Both codes stemmed from a common root and both have a long and intricately branched ancestral tree. A search down the centuries reveals at least half a dozen different games, varying to different degrees, and to which the historical development of football has been traced back. Whether this can be justified in some instances is disputable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that people have enjoyed kicking a ball about for thousands of years and there is absolutely no reason to consider it an aberration of the more ‘natural’ form of playing a ball with the hands.
On the contrary, apart from the need to employ the legs and feet in tough tussles for the ball, often without any laws for protection, it was recognised right at the outset that the art of controlling the ball with the feet was not easy and, as such, required no small measure of skill. The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China.
This Han Dynasty forebear of football was called Tsu’ Chu and it consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes. According to one variation of this exercise, the player was not permitted to aim at his target unimpeded, but had to use his feet, chest, back and shoulders while trying to withstand the attacks of his opponents. Use of the hands was not permitted.
Another form of the game, also originating from the Far East, was the Japanese Kemari, which began some 500-600 years later and is still played today. This is a sport lacking the competitive element of Tsu’ Chu with no struggle for possession involved. Standing in a circle, 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 ‘Episkyros’ – of which few concrete details survive – was much livelier, as was the Roman ‘Harpastum’. The latter was played out with a smaller ball by two teams on a rectangular field marked by boundary lines and a centre line. The objective was to get the ball over the opposition’s boundary lines and as players passed it between themselves, trickery was the order of the day. The game remained popular for 700-800 years, but, although the Romans took it to Britain with them, the use of feet was so small as to scarcely be of consequence.
History of Football – Opposition to the Game
if early football generated tremendous enthusiasm among common folk in Britain, it also withstood repeated – and unsuccessful – interventions from the authorities who frowned on this often violent recreation.
As long ago as 1314 the Lord Mayor of London saw fit to issue a proclamation forbidding football within the city due to the chaos it usually caused. Infringement of this law meant imprisonment .
During the 100 Years’ War between England and France from 1337 to 1453 the royal court was unfavourably disposed towards football. Kings Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V all made the game punishable by law because it prevented their subjects from practising more useful military disciplines, particularly archery.
All the Scottish kings of the 15th century deemed it necessary to censure and even prohibit football. Particularly famous was the decree proclaimed by the parliament convened by James I in 1424, which read: “That na man play at the Fute-ball”. None of these efforts had much effect. The popularity of the game among 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 may have played a part in intensifying the native popularity for the game came from Renaissance Italy, notably from Florence although Venice and other cities also produced their own brand of the sport known as Calcio. This was more organised than the English equivalent and was played by teams dressed in coloured livery at important gala events held on certain holidays in Florence.
In England the game was still as rough and lacking in refinement as ever, but it did at this time find a prominent supporter who commended if for other reasons. This supporter was Richard Mulcaster, the great pedagogue and head of the famous London schools of Merchant Taylors and St. Paul’s. He pointed out that the game, if requiring a little refinement, had a positive educational value as it promoted health and strength. His belief was that it would benefit from introducing a limited number of participants per team and, more importantly, a stricter referee.
Resentment of football up to this time had been focused on its capacity for public disturbance. For example, in Manchester in 1608, the game was banned because so many windows had been smashed. In the course of the 16th century a new type of attack was launched. 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 Sundays – and from then on football on that day was taboo.
This remained the case 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.
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.
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, with no standard 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 prompted schools like Charterhouse, Westminster, Eton and Harrow to favour a game more dependent 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.