The creation of football as we understand it today is geographically confined to British shores, but there is extensive evidence of ancient games with the same basic principles as the modern day incarnation. The first of these was identified as part of Shang Dynasty China in the 5th century BC, the game’s objective being to kick a leather ball through a hole in a piece of cloth which between two 30 foot poles. The Tsu’Chu military exercise in 3rd century China was also an interesting elaboration on this theme; the premise once again being to kick a leather ball through a 30-40 centimetre opening.
As the Tsu’Chu exercise lacked the central team element of today’s football, attention has also been given to the Greek and Roman games of episkyros and Harpastum respectively. The latter is particularly interesting as a game played on a rectangular grass surface with a ball roughly equivalent to a softball today.
Despite some signs of the game we love today in the Ancient World, the true development of football came in Medieval Britain by and large, although there are signs of equivalents across Europe (the majority of which were exported). Known as Shrovetide football or Medieval football, the inception point has been claimed as the 3rd century after the defeat of the Romans, but the practice itself was first recorded in the 9th century as part of the Historia Britonum (you can see one or two of the surviving engravings of medieval football at the British Museum).
Medieval Football ...? Probably not.
Typically played during the annual Carnival, the other tag of ‘mob football’ gives you a sense of what it was actually like to be involved in such games. Held between neighbouring towns and villages with no limit on the number of players and practically no rule book, matches often descended into riotous scenes. Indeed, so violent was medieval football that the Lord Mayor of London actually banned the sport in 1314, claiming ‘there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large footballs in the fields of the public’.
The extent of its popularity and rambunctiousness is reflected in the fact there were more than 30 royal and local laws which attempted to ban football between 1314 and 1667. However, by the end of the 14th century, the term ‘football’ was well established in England, with Chaucer even referencing it in his Canterbury Tales.
It was by no means solely confined to the lower orders either, as the Great Wardrobe of Henry VIII in 1526 recorded ‘one leather pair (of shoes) for football’, and decrees around 1555 were required to ban football at the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford University. Football was also prevalent beyond English borders, with the game first mentioned in Ireland in the 1527 Statute of Galway and a ball found in Scotland which dates back to 1540 and was supposedly used for football. Across the continent too, other forms of the game were visible like the 16th century Calcio Fiorentino in Florence and La Soule in Normandy.
The first signs of football developing from its mob roots came with the publication of the naturalist Francis Willoughby’s ‘Book of Sports’ around 1660. In this work, Willughby described the game of ‘football’, identifying the pitch, two ends with gates known as ‘goals’, basic positioning (notably that some of each team’s best players were left to ‘guard the goal’) and the objective as scoring the first goal. Even some details were included, such as avoiding high tackles (referred to as ‘striking’).
That said, it would be almost exactly two centuries until the formation of the modern game took place. The decisive moment was October 26th 1863 when, following a meeting by all the clubs in existence in England at the Freemason’s Tavern in London’s Great Queen Street, the Football Association was founded. Five subsequent meetings over the next two months saw the drawing up of the code, predominantly informed by the recently published Cambridge Rules but excluding regulations on running with the ball ‘properly’ and the acceptance of ‘hacking’.
The latter caused considerable uproar, with the representative from Blackheath Rugby Club claiming ‘hacking is the true football’ and thus voicing an opinion echoed today by many ex-footballers turned television pundits. The meetings also saw the institution of ‘soccer’ as a potential abbreviation for ‘Association Football’ comparable to ‘rugger’ in rugby, again igniting a debate currently raging as a result of football’s increased popularity in America (also home to American Football, a.k.a. Gridiron).
On a practical level, the meetings led to the inauguration of the first coded match (see the section below on Rules) between Sheffield and Nottingham (now Notts County), and the subsequent foundation of Nottingham Forest in 1865 and many other clubs across England. The FA Challenge Cup followed in 1871 with great success and Aston Villa director William McGregor eventually mooted the concept of a league competition in 1888 in collaboration with 11 other clubs. Initially set up as the Football League, with a 50-50 split between the North and the Midlands on one side and the South on the other, the true First Division only came as a result of the merger with the rivalling Football Alliance (set up in 1889) in 1892. The list of clubs went as follows:
Preston North End
Winners of the First English League 1888-89
The rise of club football made international football an obvious idea and, the first international match was played between England and Scotland in Partick in November 1872, ending in a disappointing 0-0. However, Scotland’s influence on England even at this early stage was palpable. After a number of English teams started hiring Scottish players, the debate over football’s amateur status was inflamed and resulted in a move to professionalism in 1885. Initially instituted with a wage limit, this was a massive boon for the northern, predominantly working-class clubs, as opposed to the ‘gentleman’ dominated south. The impact on results for the former was overwhelmingly positive, with the last amateur team to win the FA Cup being the Old Etonians in 1882. Although the wage cap was only abolished in 1959, the foundations of modern-day professional club and international football in Britain had been established.
The popularity of football on the continent was well established by the 19th century, with the first club being Switzerland’s Lausanne Football and Cricket Club, established in 1860. However, the actual development of the sport came much later. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) was formed in 1898 but the league only came about in 1929, while the first Spanish competition was the Copa del Rey in 1902, followed by La Liga in 1928.
Furthermore, European and worldwide developments were heavily influenced by the aforementioned innovations in England. For example, the first recorded game outside of Europe took place in Argentina in 1867 and involved English workers in the country. Indeed, many clubs across the world today exist due to the efforts of British natives, Corinthians FC being a prime example. Originally an amateur side based in London, they joined the Amateur Football Association rather than aligning themselves with the Football League and the FA Cup. Rather than disband though, Corinthians toured the world, inspiring the small Brazilian side in São Paulo, who renamed themselves Sports Club Corinthians Paulista in 1910 and are now one of the most important clubs in South American football, and even encouraging Spain’s fledgling Real Madrid CF to copy their trademark white shirts. Similarly, arguably the most successful Italian side in the world, AC Milan, were the brainchild of Alfred Edwards who, in 1899, established the Milan Cricket and Football Club. Such was Britain’s worldwide influence that the Argentina Football Association was founded in 1893 by Scotland-born Alexander Watson Hutton.
It is for reasons like these that football can arguably be considered the greatest export in Britain’s long history. What is certainly not in question is the incredible influence Britain had on the development of modern football; laying down the original regulations, establishing the basic competitions and spreading the game quite literally worldwide.
Remarkably, women’s football has been around since the inception of the sport in the late 19th century, and there is evidence of female involvement in all the forerunners of the game as well as medieval football. Although not as popular with spectators today, it was actually extremely popular during World War I, with women’s industry teams like Dick, Kerr’s Ladies from Preston, who also played the first international game with a team from Paris.
Cindeford Women's Football Team, 1920
The sport was practically ended with the Football Association’s decision to ban women’s football in 1921 due to supposed bad taste. However, it was eventually revived following the formation of the English Women’s FA in 1969 and the lifting of the ban in 1971. On a global level too, the game expanded and, by 1992, Japan was home to the first semi-professional women’s league (the L. League). Today, there are major international competitions, most notably the Women’s World Cup and the European Championships. Furthermore, in the UK, statistics showed well over 100,000 registered women’s footballers at the end of 2005. This was almost a ten-fold increase from the 11,2000 registered in 1993, attesting both to the popularity of women’s football in itself and the cross-gender appeal of the sport generally.