With the football season in western Europe well under way, it cannot be seriously disputed that football is the most popular sport in the world. While the premier leagues in western Europe and the European Champions League represent the pinnacle of the sport, the passion for the sport runs through many levels, down to the grassroots in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia. While South American nations have traditionally excelled in international competition, and African, Asian and North American nations have grown in confidence in the international arena, many boys and young men across these continents strive to play in the professional leagues of Europe.
To many football fans around the world, Bill Shankly’s famous 1981 quote – “Someone said ‘football is more important than life and death to you’ and I said ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.” – holds true.
Yet, the term “football” is used to refer to several different sports, including association football, rugby, American football and Australian rules football. The term “soccer” is often used to distinguish association football, from the other forms of “football”.
The various forms of “football” have a common heritage dating back to the middle ages in Britain. However, what defines each of these sports are the rules of the game.
The oldest “football” match still played today is the Royal Shrovetide Football Match which is played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England. It has been played since at least the 12th century between two halves of the town. The two goal posts are 5 km apart, and the ball is moved through the town in a series of rugby-like scrums, involving hundreds of people.
As several of the games called “football” involve as much or greater use of hands to hold or propel a ball, the term “football” probably originates from the fact that in the middle ages in Britain, games involving the handling and kicking of a ball were played by peasants “on foot”, as opposed to the sports played by the aristocracy on horse-back. However, the term “football” was also often used in the middle ages to distinguish games involving kicking or dribbling a ball with the feet as opposed to the hands (“handball”) or with a stick (“hockey”).
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, various forms of “football” were played in public schools in England. The thinking was that, if boys directed their efforts to sport, other temptations would be diminished. This was allied with a Christian belief that the body developed along with the spirit. Sport provided exercise, which was character-forming. The promotion of good conduct among boys and young men of the growing middle classes underlay the promotion of sport in public schools and universities across England. While cricket was played over the summer, the various forms of “football” were thought more suitable in winter.
The transformation of football from a ‘mob’ game to an organized and disciplined team sport required the codification of rules. The various public schools developed their own set of rules. However, when students from the various public schools played the game in university, the need for more a more universal set of rules was required. An early set of rules were developed at Cambridge University in 1848.
Many young men continued to want to play football even after leaving school or university, which led to the formation of football clubs. The oldest documented non-university football club still in existence today is Sheffield FC (unrelated to either Wednesday or United), formed in 1857. Sheffield FC devised its own set of rules, which became widely used in northern England.
A major milestone in the ongoing efforts to codify the game was the formation of the Football Association in 1863. The first set of rules was similar to the Cambridge Rules and the Sheffield Rules, as follows:
“1. The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards, the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goal shall be defined by two upright posts, eight yards apart, without any tape or bar across them.
2. A toss for goals shall take place, and the game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss for goals; the other side shall not approach within 10 yards of the ball until it is kicked off.
3. After a goal is won, the losing side shall be entitled to kick off, and the two sides shall change goals after each goal is won.
4. A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal-posts or over the space between the goal-posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on, or carried.
5. When the ball is in touch, the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground in a direction at right angles with the boundary line, and the ball shall not be in play until it has touched the ground.
6. When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked off from behind the goal line.
7. In case the ball goes behind the goal line, if a player on the side to whom the goal belongs first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick from the goal line at the point opposite the place where the ball shall be touched. If a player of the opposite side first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick at the goal only from a point 15 yards outside the goal line, opposite the place where the ball is touched, the opposing side standing within their goal line until he has had his kick.
8. If a player makes a fair catch, he shall be entitled to a free kick, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.
9. No player shall run with the ball.
10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed, and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary.
11. A player shall not be allowed to throw the ball or pass it to another with his hands.
12. No player shall be allowed to take the ball from the ground with his hands under any pretence whatever while it is in play.
13. No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta-percha on the soles or heels of his boots.”
The overturning of the two rules in the Cambridge Rules that allowed a player to run with the ball after making a fair catch, and to trip, hack, hold or push an opponent, resulted in several clubs leaving the Football Association, and subsequently forming the Rugby Football Union in 1871.
[Continued in Part 2]