England the Home of Football
"The Simplest Game... The Beautiful Game"
Two comments made over a hundred years apart by a Victorian educationalist and a Brazilian legend. But between the two of them JC Thring and Pele sum up the twin strands that have entranced populations and continue to make (association) football the most popular game in the world.
Throughout our world, someone, somewhere is playing football (or soccer depending on where you are). Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, from the smallest child to the eldest grandfather. Or let's put in another way: somewhere people have got a 'spherical-shaped' object and are trying to pass and kick it past other people.
The origin of football was not born of an isolated, conscious thought. It was more like a subconscious will, a spontaneous combustion, a sporting Big Bang. A game nobody invented and everyone can claim. But also a game the English whipped and argued into shape and then re-exported to the furthest reaches of the globe. As such therefore there are no absolute beginnings. Playing with a ball against an opponent is such an instinctive, immediate pastime that thousands of years ago the Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese and Native Americans all hold individual claims. Perhaps we should snap straight to the Greeks however and then dove-tail right to the Romans: harpastum was played on a rectangular pitch, opposing teams seeking to kick or carry the ball across the others' line. Empire-stretching dictators always like their subjects to tow the line, so it's no surprise the game soon travelled to the limits of their reach. And eventually to the shores of England...
The surprise was that in the centuries that followed the game never solidified as a structured entity, instead splintering and mutating into a variety of forms without ever going anywhere. What did happen is that everyone was playing it -- or rather the people were playing it. Like in any park today, a gathering of people happening across a ball and an area (whether a field, park or street) would simply decide to have a game. Usually a violent, physical contest. Puritans damned it "a bloody and murthering pastime rather than a felowly sport" and proclaimed the end of the world not least because of "football playing and other develishe pastimes on the Sabbath". Infact monarchs Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV sought to ban it; Edward II outlawed it on pain of imprisonment because of the "great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils arise". Well, nothing much has changed there over the years.
To the modern viewer, it was an unrecognisable game, played almost exclusively by the working classes, whilst the 'elite' concentrated on cricket or horse-racing or hunting. Despite this (maybe because of it) the game thrived. It's often stated that by the turn of the 19th Century, England was on the threshold of the modern game. But due to the quixotic ironies of history, it was indeed the seeds of the upper-class who thrust the game into being. The students at the great public schools like Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester, without the extravagant apparel or time to indulge in equestrianism or the highly-promoted cricket, took to the people's game with enormous enthusiasm -- and incredibly, because it was seen as a needed release of energy, the college's authorities supported and even organised it!
Of course, at that time everyone had their own rules. Meeting for a game, half the time would be taken up with agreeing the actual format by which to play! Indeed it took until October 1863 before the various groups came together and formed what became the Football Association. (Rugby football splitting from the set-up not over the principle of handling the ball, but because the rugby enthusiasts wanted to continue using the tactic of cutting an opponent down by kicking their shins.) It's interesting to note that though the present-day understanding of the offside rule was instituted in the twentieth century, various different versions of the concept were adopted throughout the nineteenth as well.
And this is the point of England's importance. Why England remains "the origins of the game" and is "the home of football". She can't pretend to have invented the game, but does justifiably claim to have moulded, formalised and created it. Much like the Romans, the English explorers and traders took it back out across the world -- two Englishmen launched it through their cotton mill in Russia; in Chile and Uruguay there are still clubs called Everton and Liverpool because of the sailors who used to organise games on the docks; in the US there are teams named Kensington FC and Shamrock FC.
Because it is simple, football maintains its beauty. The great skill of the English pioneers was to retain that simplicity, to build a basic structure of rules that never sought to take it away from its populist roots. It's to be hoped that this never changes. And that the fundamentals laid down in England remain for always intact -- remain indeed for the people.