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A Concise History of English Football

In the wake of England’s recent Euro success (at time of writing, let’s hope it continues!), the whole country is once again hooked on the beautiful game. It is generally accepted by historians that England was the birthplace of football, and it’s rich and varied history is always a source of fascination. From its origins in Medieval London to the World Cup of 1966, English football, whilst sometimes a source of pain, frustration and a general ‘what on earth have I just watched’ type feeling, it is also a major source of patriotism, national pride, and something the whole country can really get behind. Afterall, everyone knows it’s coming home…

Whilst there are reports of a football-like game having been played in Ancient Greek and Roman times, the first recorded game most resembling football took place all the way back in 1170. Reflecting in his memoirs about a visit to London, William Fitzstephen – a cleric and administrator for Thomas Becket – noted that ‘after dinner all the youths of the city go out into the fields for the very popular game of ball’. Football in this form was played throughout the country, though reportedly it evolved to be rather violent and aggressive, even causing death to participants in some cases, and for that reason was ultimately outlawed for centuries.

Since that point, the game varied greatly. Football-like games would make a reappearance in London in 1835 and, for a long time, there was little distinction between the sports we now know as football and rugby. It was around this time that the game started to be played in public schools, including Rugby and Eton, though the rules were somewhat different to the ones we know today, and each school had their own variation of the game. In Rugby, it was called ‘the running game’ (which later did, in fact, become rugby the sport) and in Eton, ‘the dribbling game’.

With its rise in popularity in upper class society, became a need for official rules and regulations. Ultimately, this led to the creation the England Football Association in 1863 – the oldest football association in the world, which changed the game to the one we know and love today, creating rules such as banning the use of hands, regulating the size and shape of the ball and fundamentally creating a clear differentiation between football and rugby. Ebenezer Morley, a solicitor from London who also formed Barnes FC in 1862, could be considered the founding father of The Association. An avid sportsman, he was inspired to write to ‘Bell’s Life’ newspaper, proposing that there should a governing body for football, who had the power to set and initiate rules. The first FA meeting took place as a result of this, wherein Morley was elected the first secretary of the association. Morley can also be accredited to the banning of ‘hacking’; a practice in the sport that allowed for the kicking of the shins of the players who were carrying the ball.

Soon after the development of the FA and the expansion out of public schools, the sport became particularly favoured within the working class and, not long after that, gained international recognition and interest. The first known international football tournament was between England and Scotland, taking place in 1872. The score, eerily similar to the game we watched not too long ago, was a rather uninspiring 0-0, but it set the precedent for the international football front we know all so well in modern day. Around the same time, English football took on a life of its own as clubs around the country began popping up, starting in schools and colleges before developing into fully-fledged, individual clubs. Sheffield F.C. is the world’s oldest independent football club, having been founded in 1857. Notts County was the first solely professional football club.

For a century after, football grew out it’s English roots and became popular the world over, resulting in the eventual creation of FIFA (or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) in 1904. FIFA held the first world cup in Uruguay in 1930, but it wasn’t until 1966 when England won the tournament, after beating Germany in a similar defeat to the one we saw on Tuesday (29th July) – hence the chant ‘two world wars and one world cup’.

As legend has it, England (along the rest of the allied forces) and Germany once played a game of football in very different circumstances. In the early hours of Christmas Eve 1914, members of the British Expeditionary Force overheard German troops in the opposite trenches singing Christmas carols, particularly ‘Stille Nacht’ (the German version of ‘Silent Night’). After hearing this, an impromptu ceasefire was called and both sets of troops met in no man’s land, where a truce was made and a game of football game was played, and a Christmas was celebrated as best it could’ve been given the circumstances.

The 20th century has seen the biggest evolution of the game however, and football has arguably the most-played sport on earth. Whilst English football hasn’t seen the brightest of days in recent years (Euros 2008, anyone?), I think the majority can agree that football in England creates a buzz like no other sport can, and who knows? This year, it could be coming home after all.

            Catch the Euros semi-finals and final all this week on Sky channels 101 and 103.