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Football History

Football History: The Origins And How The Game Started

There is a long history behind football (or soccer as it is sometimes called). In the middle of the 19th century, football became what it is today in England. Football history includes alternative versions of the game that existed much earlier.

Tsu Chu Ancient Soccer

Football Pre-History

Football has ancient origins. Indeed, almost every culture has enjoyed kicking a ball for thousands of years. Early balls included human heads, cow bladders, and stitched-up cloth.

The Munich Ethnological Museum exhibit in Germany includes a Chinese text from approximately 50 B.C. that describes physical education exercises called tsu chu, which consists of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair into a small net—and, like in football today, the use of hands was prohibited.

The Japanese had a similar game called kemari, dating from about A.D. 300. Still played today, kemari is less energetic than Chinese tsu chu and, consequently, it was seen as more dignified and ceremonious–it may have even been part of ancient fertility rites or used to mark particular seasons of the year.

Reminiscent of today’s hacky sack game, kemari players attempted to pass the ball to one another without letting the ball touch the ground.

marble artwork of men playing football from ancient Greece

Versions Of The Game

Because the art of controlling the ball with the feet was challenging and required technique and talent, the ancient Greeks and Romans used their versions of football to sharpen the skills of warriors for battle.

The Greeks played episkyros (“game”) while the Romans played Harpastum (“ball”), which was played with a small ball on a rectangular field with opposing teams.

The object was to get the ball over the other team’s boundary lines, using trickery and hands if necessary. The games were very popular, and spectators tended to be vocally involved in the proceedings.

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The early Olympic games in Rome included Harpastum, consisting of 27 men on each side who competed so enthusiastically that nearly two-thirds of them once had to be hospitalized after a fifty-minute game.

In pre-industrialized England, football was often a “mob” game of village against the village and lacked written rules. It was played through the streets across fields, hedges, fences, and streams where almost anything was allowed.

mob football game

Nobleman’s Role In Football History

Nearly everyone played football, including dignitaries and noblemen such as Oliver Cromwell, Walter Scott, and several kings. However, despite its immense popularity, some viewed football as lower in status than more “wealthy” endeavors, such as equestrian sports.

It began to be routinely condemned for its threat to the soul through its unruliness and its threat to life and property through its violence. King Edward I of England (1307-1327) was so appalled at the noise and violence of the games that he passed laws threatening imprisonment to anyone caught playing football.

Both King Henry IV (1367-1413) and Henry VIII (1491-1547) banned football, and Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) threatened to jail football players for a week, followed by church penance. Laws, however, could not stop the games, and in 1681, football was reinstated and soared in popularity.

cambridge rules 1848

Britain As the Birthplace of Modern Football History

While football in its various forms was played for centuries worldwide, the primary source of modern football codes and rules lies in Britain.

Around the mid-eighteenth century, as Britain moved from an agrarian to an industrial society, football began to change. Instead of playing in open fields of the countryside, the game was adapted to play in the narrow streets and on the hard surfaces of new cities.

As city infrastructure and improvements in transportation (such as the steam engine) grew, it became possible for teams to play one another across the country. The expanding scope of the game created a need for uniform rules and a national governing body.

Cambridge Rules Of Football

Standardizing Football

The first attempt to standardize the rules of football were the Cambridge Rules, first drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848. Representatives from Cambridge, Eton Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, and Shrewsbury schools attended, but the proposed rules needed to be uniformly adopted.

Only when the Football Association (F.A.) was formed on Oct 26th, 1863, in London, would the different associations agree on a set of fundamental rules allowing the various teams to play with each other.

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During the meetings, however, a representative from Blackheath withdrew his club over the removal of two draft rules–the first allowed for the running of the ball in hand, and the second allowed for the obstructing of such a run by “hacking” (kicking an opponent in the shins), tripping, and holding.

Other English rugby-orientated football clubs followed his lead and did not join the F.A., later forming the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Die-hard rugby teams wanted no part in a game that didn’t allow shin-kicking, tripping, and carrying the ball.

The eleven remaining clubs, under the charge of Ebenezer Cobb Morley, ratified the original thirteen rules of the game. Modern football was born under the name “Association Football” to distinguish it from the rugby style of play.

Ebenezer Cobb Morley

Modern Football Spreads

It is not a coincidence that as the industrial revolution and concomitant infrastructure quickly spread throughout Great Britain, football as an organized sport was established there before it was in most other countries.

The standardization of football was also part of a more significant national effort to recognize and organize all sports in Great Britain, such as mountaineering, track, and field, swimming, sailing, etc.

Rules standardization evolved as the century continued. Initially, there were no descriptions of the ball until eight years after the original F.A. meeting in 1863, when the size and weight of the ball finally became official.

Before that, the type of ball was agreed upon by the two teams playing – such as in the match between London and Sheffield in 1866, the official first game where the duration was set at one and a half hours.

Around this time, the term “soccer” came into use as a British slang word. Oxford and Cambridge students would use “association football” to distinguish it from rugby.

Some attribute the term to Oxford student Charles Brown who liked to shorten words such as “brekker” for breakfast or “rugger” for rugby, or “soccer” for assoc, a shortened form of “association.”

While the term “soccer” is a British coinage, Americans were the first to use the term in full effect to distinguish it from football. The English rarely used the term “soccer,” preferring to call it football.

1925 Prague FIFA Congress

Standardizing The Rules Of Football

The rules of the game are currently determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which was formed in 1886 and consists of the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales, the Irish Football Association, and FIFA, which currently has over 204 members in every part of the world.

Each U.K. association has one vote, and FIFA has four, creating a type of checks and balances of power. While IFAB makes the laws, FIFA is responsible for organizing and governing major international tournaments according to rules created by the IFAB.

FIFA was formed in 1904 partly in response to the Olympic movement, and even today, it battles the IOC to manage football games during the Olympics.

When the Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1932, football was excluded due to the United States’ low interest and the constant bickering over the status of amateur players between FIFA and the IOC.

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Due to this exclusion, FIFA created a tournament independent from the Olympics called the World Cup and held the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay. Football would later be included in every subsequent Olympics, except for the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, which were canceled due to the political tensions of WWII.

Arguably the most popular game on earth, its internal controlling body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), boasts more members than the United Nations (UN).

keeping the crowd off the pitch in the 1910 fa cup replay

The Football Influence On Nations

More prominent than baseball, American football, and basketball combined, football is the most-watched sporting event in the world, even more than the Olympics. In many parts of the world, football is a ubiquitous, powerful presence.

The futures of several regimes, specifically in Latin America, have been significantly influenced by a football match. For example, rioting after a 1969 game between El Salvador and Honduras sparked a five-day war, known as the Football War between the countries where several people died, and hundreds were hospitalized.

The sport also aggravated tensions at the beginning of the Yugoslavia Wars in the 1990s when a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade collapsed into mass rioting in March 1990.

Football, throughout history has unified, empowered, and encouraged both individuals and countries. As a result, soccer is not just a game but a global event with vast political, national, and economic influence.

Football War