It may come as a surprise to many, but football has a long and interesting history; sources suggest that the sport was first introduced in England as early as 1170 when an account describes youths going to the fields for a ‘game of ball’. Aspects of the game can even be traced back to as early as the second and third century BC in China. Sources taken from military manuals at the time describe an exercise called Tsu’ Chu, in which opponents used a leather ball filled with feathers and hair. The aim was to get the ball into a small net fixed on to bamboo canes while also defending themselves from attacks. Variations of the game are also documented in Egyptian and Greek society, proving that the sport has a long tradition throughout history.
In comparison to China’s advanced version of the football itself, the English equivalent was made using an inflated animal bladder. The game’s appeal continued to increase in England so much so that in the 1300s, its popularity became a bone of contention for Edward II. The king became increasingly concerned that football was distracting people from practising archery, at a time when he was preparing to go to war with Scotland. The solution to this problem was to enforce a ban on everyone playing football. This was to be the first of many bans to be instituted by leading figures such as Edward III, Henry IV and Oliver Cromwell.
Nevertheless, football re-emerged and continued to increase in popularity, particularly amongst the working classes, who saw the game as an opportunity to channel their grievances and socialise with people from similar backgrounds. But these matches did not always end in a civilised manner; with limited rules and no referees at the time, the pitch often became violent. It was acceptable to beat or punch opposing team players including destroying their personal property and even, on occasion, their homes or businesses. Volumes of players also varied in some circumstances to as many as 1000 people at any one time, so it wasn't surprising that football matches often spiralled out of control. It became such a problem in the 1800s that a highway act was eventually introduced in 1830, stating that those who played football on highways would be required to pay a fine.
Football's appeal transcended the class divisions, becoming extremely popular at public schools during the 18th century. This provided the context for specific rules to be created for the game. An 1848 meeting at Cambridge drew up rules outlining goal kicks, throw ins and goalies' rights, all of which are still included today. These small stepspaved the way for the rise of football club teams and national and international games and championships.
The British have also been considered instrumental at spreading the game, in its modern inception, across the world. The first ever match recorded outside of Europe was in Argentina in 1867, led by several Englishmen working abroad at the time.
Though football was considered a male sport, it was not exclusively played by men; women have been involved in the game since the late nineteenth century. It became increasingly popular during World War I when women had taken on the jobs traditionally done by men. Those in industrial labour regularly met to play. A ladies team from Preston was one of the first to compete in an international game against Paris. There was a brief ban after World War I made by the Football Association who deemed women’s football to be inappropriate. However, the formation of the English Women’s FA saw the ban eventually lifted in 1971. Since then women’s football has continued to grow in Britain and abroad. Some of the largest football clubs such as Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea all have female teams which compete at home and internationally.
Football has become a much loved part of British culture, and has been instrumental in causing change. Possibly the strangest match took place during World War I, a period of history epitomised by bloodshed and death on massive scales. On Christmas eve of 1914, upon hearing German troops singing carols, both sides walked on to no mans land and played a game of football. While it is not known who won that day, this was to be the only time in the trenches where artillery fire ceased. The Christmas Day Truce of 1914, as it became known, highlights the impact football has had in this country, and indeed the world, and helps explain why it is the nation’s favourite pasttime.
Football has also been mired by both tragedy and controversy, as seen by the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989, in which 96 people were crushed to death. In another incident, referred to as the Heysel Stadium Disaster (1985), a large group of Liverpool fans breached a fence separating them from Juventus fans; the resultant death of 32 people led to English football clubs being banned by UEFA from all European competitions until the early 1990s and a number of Liverpool fans being prosecuted for manslaughter.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a defining moment for a nation that until 1994 was under a regime of apartheid. It was hoped that the biggest sports event in the world would bring prosperity to the host country and show the rest of the world a different side of Africa. Football has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings hundreds of years ago.