Football: Pelé dubbed it “the beautiful game”, and it certainly is, with all the long-range screamers and seemingly impossible saves that are made every single season.
But tell that to the goalkeeper who’s let a pea-roller through his legs or the striker that’s skied the ball from a yard in front of goal.
There are many sides to the modern game – both heart-warming and heart-breaking – but just for a minute, let’s go back in time to earliest roots of the sport, before the first ball had ever been kicked.
Ball sports are nothing new – various incarnations have been played for thousands of years.
Ancient Greeks played a game called phaininda, which the Romans then adapted and created their own version named harpastum.
While no one is sure of the exact rules, the physician, Galen, commented that there was a contact element to the game, to put it lightly, with players even getting their opponents in wrestling holds to stop them in their tracks.
In the Greek form of the game, a spectator even limped away with a broken leg, having been caught up in play!
The popularity of Rome-derived ball games grew to such an extent that mob football became the main form played in Britain by the 15th century and remained so until the 19th century.
Mob football was a brutal game which involved two opposing teams trying to get a football from one side of a village or town to the other. There were no limits on the number of players on each side.
These games had no rules, or officiating of any kind. Mob football was originally played during Shrovetide and other religious festivals. The phrase ‘local derby’ is speculated to originate in the county of Derby, where two towns would often play mob football against each other during Shrovetide.
The development of organised football
In the late 1500s, public schools in Great Britain began to play their own form of football. For the next two centuries, public schools were instrumental in turning football into an organised sport.
Richard Mulcaster, a pupil at Eton College, made the earliest known references to “sides”, “standings” (positions), and the “judge over the parties” (referee) ca. 1581.
Rugby School (after which one branch of football was named), Marlborough, and Cheltenham Schools preferred the game where the participants carried the ball.
Other schools, such as Harrow, Eton, Charterhouse and Westminster, preferred the version of football involving dribbling and kicking the ball – two of the fundamental practices of what is now known as football (or soccer).
Forming the rules of football
England was the first country in the world to develop its own codified rules. Stemming from the desire of different public schools to compete against each other, the Cambridge Rules were put into writing in 1848 – the first written football code.
In 1863, former students of public schools came together to set up the Football Association (FA). The written rules of the FA provide the first English language reference to ‘passing’ the ball.
Although the offside rule was part of the original code, it was far removed from how it is recognised today. Back then, any attacking player ahead of the ball was judged to be offside.
CW Alcock was the first player to be caught offside in 1866. Even early on, it was clear that teams would look to exploit the rule as part of their tactics.
Goal kicks came into the game in 1869 and corner kicks made their first appearance in 1872. The FA Cup competition began a year earlier in 1871.
The growing popularity of football
The Industrial Revolution signalled the death knell of mob football, which in turn helped lead to the prominence of the modern game.
Workers from rural towns moved to the cities for work which led to the decline of mob football in the countryside, which had already been banned in the cities for its unruly and extremely violent nature.
The Factory Act 1850 cut the working hours of adult men by half a day on a Saturday, which meant that workers had more time for sports, such as football. As such, teams from pubs and factories began to appear as a means of recreation during time off.
This rise in matches led to a number of teams adopting permanent grounds. This further increased football’s popularity as spectator sport in the latter part of the 19th century and beyond.
The move from amateur to professional
Improvements in transport meant that supporter interest increased, and entrepreneurs quickly realised that football was a real money-spinner.
As a result, the sport changed gradually from an amateur pastime to a professional sport. The FA was initially against professionalism until it finally gave official sanction in 1885.
This led to the formation of the English Football League in 1888, of which 12 teams were founding members.
1891 and 1902: two important years in the development of the modern game
Penalties came into the game in 1891. However, they were not taken on a marked spot, but anywhere along a 12-yard line. The penalty spot was added in 1902, when a space 18 yards from the goal line was created, along with a line that stood 44 yards from goal – thus marking the birth of the penalty area.
The notion of a single referee overseeing a match also became part of football rules in 1891. From this point onwards, the referee had the power to award penalties and send players off (as he still does today).
Before 1891, the referee would stand on the touchline and keep time. The two umpires were the main officiators and would refer to the referee if they couldn’t agree on a decision. As of 1891, the two umpires became linesman (known today as assistant referees).
The final pieces of the modern football jigsaw
The D-shape was finally added to the penalty box in 1937. It was also during the late 1930s that the rules of the game – by then totalling 17 – were shaken up.
The old rules were written in Victorian English, and Stanley Rous (who would later become FIFA President in 1961) was charged with updating them. Rous’ changes included the addition of the modern diagonal system of refereeing.
Despite a number of small rules changes continuing to appear to this day, the game we now recognise as football had taken full shape by the late 1930s.
While the game as we know it may have only been tweaked to perfection in the last century, ball sports have been enjoyed by players and spectators for thousands of years.
With talk of tech still rife after the successful addition of goal-line technology, the future of the game is shaping up to be more precise and fairer than ever before.