History of Soccer – Industrial England

Cup Final Crowds

The first FFG edition of ‘History of Soccer’ refuted FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s claim that modern soccer descends from ball games played in antiquity (and, again, we wish to note that we are beholden to David Goldblatt’s work).

Instead, the provincial games of Western Europe and Celtic Britannia were soccer’s sole predecessors.

These games, though, were all but gone from Europe by the end of the 1800s due to disinterest from both the rich and poor. The aristocracy preferred games with obvious gambling possibilities, horse racing and boxing were particular favorites. The provincial games of Wales, Ireland and the like also had to fight “a campaign against traditional sports and pastimes” among many lower-class factions. Some religious groups, for example, associated soccer with more violent activities like cock-fighting, and business owners – remember this is a just-industrializing England – rued the loss of labor.

Only one haven – Britain’s schools – continued to not just allow but encourage these games.

These public schools, existing “to educate the sons of the country’s old landed and new commercial families,” all had some type of soccer-style game by the early nineteenth century. The status of these generative games was reinforced by Victorian England’s concern “with issues of physical health.” Physical education maintained an equal place in the curriculum with math, science, and Latin.

Though the games grew in popularity, the closed nature of the schools led to different styles. Some focused on dribbling, others on passing, and many of them allowed the use of hands and feet. By the mid 1800s, a number of schools had official rules – “the first written set of rules was produced by Rugby in 1845” – and as students graduated they spread their versions among peers, eventually crossing most social lines. This only increased the mass chaos that inevitably resulted when teams with different rules met for a match.

A November 1863 meeting of alumni from various schools led to the first widely-accepted set of rules. This group called themselves the Football Association and referred to their game as association football, the term from which soccer is derived.

The Football Association, colloquially known as the FA, also founded the FA Cup (originally held in 1871), which they opened to participants of any social background. The competition’s first decade was dominated by teams originating from the aristocratic public schools, but as soccer’s popularity grew, lower-class teams gradually began to take over. One reason for their prominence was the then illegal practice of paying players. While the FA had shown remarkable foresight by allowing the masses to participate in their cup, their subsequent decision to allow pay-for-play separated association football from other emerging ball games. Rugby clubs, in contrast, continued “to do all they could to keep their game within the confines of the elite,” including outlawing professionalism.

However, soccer could not have grabbed the nation’s attention without a few concurrent sociological factors. First, the working class was given a half-day off every Saturday, which, along with a gradual rise in wages, gave workers time and money to spend on Saturday afternoon matches. Additionally, rail stations were constructed throughout England in the late 19th century and many of them were set up in cities that already had, or shortly thereafter gained, a soccer club.

The 1888 creation of an FA-sponsored league took advantage of these developments, arranged the various clubs’ schedules into an easy-to-follow format, and cemented soccer’s place in the top echelon of England’s sporting culture.

Next week, FFG will document soccer’s spread to other continents and why Anglo cultures seemed to be the least affected.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. bensTEN says:

    Or we could just skip all the academics and say the beautiful game is just so…well, beautiful that it’s hardwired into us and arises spontaneously wherever human culture develops!

    Seriously, though, excellent history and background. Thanks for sharing.

  2. JIM-Bo says:

    Nice work on the history, however I was wondering if you had any links to websites talking about the differences between the MLS and England’s soccer associations.

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