What Do You Know About Football? Part 1: How Football Originated

gem asdaniCorrespondent ISeptember 29, 2008

Think you know football? Think again…This is a multi-part series explaining the different codes of football, their origins, current state and future. Most football fans follow only one code, and this series aims to expand their knowledge of the different football games out there.

Football….Just saying the word will bring up many great memories: memories of great plays, great players and great championships. However those great memories may be of a completely different sport, depending on where in the world you say it. Almost anywhere on the planet, the most popular sport is called “football” and the game hold a special place in the psyches of entire nations. But what is “real” football and where did it originate from?

Football refers to a number of different teams sports, all of which are built on the premise that a ball should be kicked between a goal to score points. There are many codes of the sport, which include:

  • Association Football (also known as futbol/soccer/calcio/futball...etc),
  • Rugby Football (including both union and league codes)
  • American Football (also known as gridiron football)
  • Canadian Football
  • Australian Football (also known as Aussie rules football)
  • Gaelic Football

All of these games came from the same origins. Yet, they have all evolved on separate paths and each version has become an integral part of the identities of nations. One of the results of this is that people have a deep love of their code of football, which can produce both intense fandom but also cause them to very protective of their form of football. We have seen countless examples of Australians, Americans, Europeans all arguing which is the "real football" and everybody is willing to actively promote their football as the superior code. Yet much of this would likely cease if people understood that there is no “real” code of football and that they are all interrelated and share a lot in common. In effect, they are all one family of sports.

This article will look at the history of the game of football and how the codes separated to give us the variety we have today. Many are completely clueless where their preferred football code came from, and many are surprised that they have been historically derived from one another.

Ancient games and violent mob football

There are many ancient games from around the world that could be the roots of football. In fact, it seems that virtually every single culture prior to the Industrial Revolution had some form of ball game that involved the ball being kicked towards some goal. The oldest is the Chinese game of "cuju" from the second century BC. The game involved kicking a ball through a hole in the cloth to score points. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans and other civilizations all had ball kicking games that influenced later sports. However, by all counts, modern football's origins lie in England.

There have been various "mob football" games in the middle ages where entire villages would compete to move a ball from their side to the opponents "goal", which was often a church or some other building. In the beginning these games had few rules, massive heaps of people would fight over a ball and kick it around until it got to the goal. Punching and kicking your opponents was common, and all out brawl would break out as the teams fough over the ball. Property was frequently destroyed and the streets of the village and people's fences were often left destroyed by the violence. The only rule pretty much was: no murder.

There were really no true limits or official rules, and variations of the game abounded (an Italian version of mob football called Calcio Fiorentino was one of the earliest recorded codes in 1580). As the ruling classes of Europe saw the really rowdy nature of the games as dangerous, many laws were passed to ban the game. Between 1324 and 1667, football was banned in England alone by more than 30 royal and local laws. However it was very difficult to enforce these and stop huge crowds from playing the games...and so football continued in all of its unstructured chaotic glory.

England colleges and the first sets of rules

The first organizations that saw that the extremely violent game of mob football need to be changed to involve less fighting and more structured rules were the English public schools. It was here that the first rules were laid down, and the distinction between kicking and carrying were first established.

 The Eton College was to place limits of the violence and assign referees to judge unfair challenges in the 16th century. They were also the first to establish the idea of positions and the idea of goalkeeping. The concepts of an organized scrum and the offside came to be during in the period of 1810–1850 in Winchester, Rugby, Harrow and Cheltenham. This is also where the great divide between being able to carry the ball in your hands and controlling it with your feet by dribbling happened. Schools like Rugby and Cheltenham had rules that the ball could be carried, while Eton, Harrow and Westminster had rules that the ball should be controlled by the feet only.

In 1848, the Cambridge Rules were officially created in Cambridge University when a meeting was called between representatives from Cambridge, Trinity, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury. They brought together first established rules for a game that involved mostly kicking but also allowed players to use hands to catch the ball. These rules established the basics of all football games to follow. Similar games spread to other countries which were either current or former England colonies like Australia, Canada and United States of America. These nations also had their own schools which played a variety of football-like games but without much central regulation. The game evolved differently to form the various codes through these early schools.

The Football Association (The FA)

In 1863, representatives of several London football clubs and English colleges agreed to set up a first formal regulatory association for football. The gentlemen met over a period of 3 months to chart down the rules and agree on the organization of the game. Some of the original rules no longer apply to association football, but they are still a part of other codes of football. For example, being able to catch the ball with the hands and call a “mark” is still part of  Australian football. We can only imagine the debates that entailed as the members of the FA argued of how the game should be established, but they must have been heated. For example, the representative from Blackheath stormed out of an FA meeting because the other members didn’t agree that “true football” needed to have a rule that allowed the ball carrier to be kicked in the shin (hacking) and said that the removal of hacking would bring “lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice”. After much debate and on their fifth, the early Campbridge rules of allowing players the ability to use their hands to catch a kicked ball and hacking were removed from the FA charter. This caused the Blackheath Club as well as some other football clubs who disagreed with the rules to remove themselves from the FA and form their own association.

The establishment of Rugby Football

There is an legend that a pupil of Rugby school named William Webb Ellis first showed a “fine disregard for the rules of football” and “took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game”, a claim attributed to a local antiquarian and former Rugbeian Matthew Bloxam. This story has since been discredited by both historians and Old Rugbeian Society, but still remains entrenched in Rugby lore. However, the real split between association football and rugby came over hacking. Even though ironically hacking is today removed from rugby and happens more in association football, it was this that caused the Rugby Football Union to be formed in 1870. The name came from the fact that the game was well-established in the Rugby School, located in the town of Rugby, Warwickshire, England.

The game developed differently in the north and south of England, with the south clubs being more working-class while the northern clubs were more upper-class. This rift between the two brought changes to the game and a new code called rugby league formed, creating changes such as reducing the number of players on the field from 15 to 13, removal of rucking and mauling and line outs. Today the two codes of rugby still remain as separate football codes.

From Rugby to Australian Rules Football

Many believe that Australian football was created as a cross between Rugby football, an Irish game called caid and various aboriginal games. The first rules were first set up in Geelong, Australia but the Melbourne Rules become the dominant ones. It was a letter in Bell's Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle in 1858 which is thought to have been the basis of the establishment of Australian Football, as the letter called for a code of football to keep cricketeers fit during winter. Soon a meeting was hosted by Melbourne Cricket Club member Jerry Bryant to bring together a set of rules that would be widely distributed and promoted. These first simple 10 rules were greatly influenced by early football rules from England for example the “mark” rules was established and hacking was disallowed. The rugby rules of being able to hand the ball become a prominent aspect as well.


American and Canadian Football codes

There were football games being played in America as early as 1820, like the Old division Football played in New Hampshire. However modern American and Canadian football are based on Rugby football, and the first American football game is often listed as the 1874 match between McGill University of Canada and Harvard University of the USA. It was Harvard University that used its prestigious reputation to convince other schools to play the carrying-based football game instead of kicking-based football games.

The first standardization came from Walter Camp, a Yale coach who is often dubbed the father of American Football, almost single handedly establishing the sport. His aim was to create a game that combined his two favorite sports: Rugby football and Chess. Hence he broke up the game into individual start-stop “plays”, similar to the way chess is played. He also reduced the number of players to 11 like in association football, and introduced the concept of the line of scrimmage that acted as a line which players couldn’t get over before a play starts, a variation of the offside line in other football codes.

Gaelic football 

Many people have never heard of the sport of Gaelic football, and upon their first sight they may conclude that it is a crazy mix between association football, Australian football and rugby. However, it is a very old sport that has roots to County Meath in 1670. The Gaelic Athletic Association had a desire to promote traditional Irish sports and reject foreign sports that were coming in from England. The first Gaelic football rules were drawn up by Maurice Davin in 1887, and came to being to both increase the influence of the hurling based rules and remove some English association football rules such as offside. The sport became its own code, and many believe that it greatly influenced Australian football. The games appear to have so many commonalities that Irish and Australian teams have played under modified team rules known as compromise rules or international football rules. Although the sport has mostly been kept amateur by the mandate of the GAA, its today considered to be the national sport of Ireland.


Why your football isn’t better than another football

 Today football has become the dominant sport in the world, in all its wonderful varieties. Many people limit themselves to only one code of football, which is a shame. Arguments over which is the “real” football do nothing but expose the ignorance of many people that there is more than one game called football, it would be like arguing over whether a fullback is a position in American football or association football since it’s a position name used in both. Arguing over which one is better is as silly as arguing over whether Chinese food is better than Mediterranean food or is French food the best…there is no basis for these arguments as people generally are going to like whatever their culture exposes them to the most. Such is the case with football as well, and since they are all so interrelated and came from similar roots its even more silly to argue over it.

So now that you know the basic history of the major codes, why not learn a bit more of another football and broaden your horizons? If you’ve been a Manchester United fans for life, why not check out the Dallas Cowboys as well? If you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, give the All-Blacks a look. In the next few articles of the series, I will go over each code and underline its premise and give a brief introduction to people who are new to the sport. So lets all go grab a beer and watch some football!