Did England Invent Football? The Origins and Evolution of the Beautiful Game

England fans regularly sing about football ‘coming home’ during World Cups and European Championships, paying tribute to a notion that football is an English invention. Massively popular and accessible, with reportedly 517 million viewers watching the 2018 World Cup final and, according to FIFA, an estimated 250 million people regularly playing football worldwide. It is abundantly clear that football is one of the biggest sports on the planet. So, whilst it is claimed to be an English creation, does the origin of the sport run deeper, and were other countries involved in making football the game we know and love today?

Ancient Predecessors

Although officially formalised in 1863, football’s origins stretch much further into the past, and many countries have had a history of playing ball games which can be likened to football.

Tchatali

Teotihuacan, Aztec City in Mexico

One of the earliest instances of a ball game regarded as a precursor to football was ‘Tchatali’ a game played by the Aztecs over 3,000 years ago. Using a ball made of solid rubber, players wearing heavy padding had to use their elbows, knees, and hips to keep the ball off the ground, whilst aiming to put the ball into a 30cm wide hoop at the opposing end of the court. Whichever team got the ball through the hoop immediately won the game, and quite often the captain of the losing team was offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Talk about all to play for!

Cuju

Chinese Parchment

An ancient ball game most similar to football as we know it today was a sport played in China during the Han dynasty from 206BC to 220AD. Translating to ‘kick ball’, ‘Cuju’ was a game which, like football, had the aim of kicking a ball into a goal, with the use of hands outlawed. As the game developed, two forms of goalposts were introduced. One being a single post standing in the middle of the pitch, whilst the other was two posts with a net strung in between.

As the game evolved, the initial objective of striking the single post, or netted posts, was phased out, and developed to a game based around passing play. With this new form of Cuju, points were instead awarded to teams whose players judged the passing distance right, or those who managed to get a first-time pass. Likewise, points were deducted if passes didn’t manage to reach a player.

Episkyros

Parthenon Pillar, Athens

Another early game closely resembling football was ‘Episkyros’, an ancient Greek ball game translating to ‘common ball’. Whilst Cuju is credited as the ancient game most resembling football, Episkyros is a game outlined as being highly influential in inspiring the collaborative team working nature of the football we now know it. Historically the aim of the game was to make use of a team ranging from two to fourteen players, and handling or kicking the ball with the objective of getting the ball past a white goal line being defended by the opposing team. The game was renowned for its high level of violence.

Folkball

Dry Stone Wall

Ancient times also saw football make its way to England’s consciousness, through a game known as ‘folkball’. The aim of this game was to get the ball into a designated area to score a point, and they’d do this through kicking, throwing, or carrying a ball historically recorded as being made of a pig’s bladder. Unlike the football known today, ‘folkball’ often spanned a distance of several miles between scoring areas and would be played by huge numbers of people compared to the teams of 11 we now know. Notorious for its violence, the 14th century saw the game banned by the authorities, in light of the ‘great noise’ it produced.

However, whilst these early ball games are sometimes declared as predecessors to the football people play and watch today, some historians disregard these claims and decree the 19th century as the era football first began. British historian Tom Holland is one such historian, with Holland quoted as saying, “Kicking something around is an obvious human activity. That various peoples, in various parts of the world, may or may not have engaged in such activities, does not prove that they were the originators of football.”

Creating Football As We Know It Today

Ebenezer Cobb Morley Plaque on the Site of the Freemasons' Tavern
Image: Plaque by Spudgun67, Wikimedia Commons

The sport as we know it today is known to have started taking its official form in 1863, when the Football Association was first founded in England and the game’s rules were formalised.

Prior to 1863, there were numerous iterations of football with differences in various elements such as ball size, the number of players and the length of matches. The rules were not standardised and each public school played a version of the game formalised to their own local conditions, often creating chaos and confusion when the schoolboys reached university level and each player had been raised to play with different rules.

An 1848 meeting at Cambridge was the first known attempt to create a proper set of consistent rules, and these rules would become widely adopted (and hence were very influential later on during the 1863 FA formation). However, a division around football’s rules was still present, as 1850 saw another set of rules being devised, this time arising from Sheffield, and these rules would be used by several clubs in Northern England.

It was then in 1863 that the first real step to full standardisation was achieved during a meeting at The Freemasons’ Tavern in London. Rules set down included the winner of the coin toss getting to choose their side of the pitch, an established maximum pitch length, and a ban on shin-kicking, alongside more obvious rules such as how goals are scored. It must be noted, however, that the game was far from its final form in 1863, with no presence of corner kicks, and an allowance to catch the ball provided they didn’t run or throw with it. It wasn’t until 1870 that all forms of ball handing were banned (other than for goalkeepers), and it was not until 1872 that corner kicks were first introduced; 1872 also saw the standardisation of ball sizes.

Whilst no individual is credited outright as the inventor of football, Englishman Ebenezer Morley is regarded as the ‘father of football’, with it being a letter written by Morley to the Bell’s Life newspaper in 1863 proposing a governing body for the sport that led to the foundation and first meeting of the Football Association on the 26th of October 1863.

The Scottish Argument

Scottish Flag Against Blue Sky

Whilst England seems to be the country taking the credit for standardising and inventing football, Scottish footballers can arguably be credited for their historic involvement in developing the game’s playing style. English players first played in a more rugby-style fashion, running forward, and dribbling with the ball, whilst the Scots chose to play with a more pass-intensive style, and it would be this approach that became the one more predominantly adopted by future teams.

Therefore, whilst England can be credited with inventing the rules of the game, the game would be changed by countries that took these rules and added their own ideas and styles around these rules. Scotland’s passing game gradually spread around the world, first being picked up by England, and then eventually being exported to other countries around the world as the sport gradually gained popularity.

Early Football Clubs

Vintage Football Boots

A highly important step to making the game what it is today was the formation of football clubs. For it’s all well and good having a sport to play, but it’s not so good if there are no teams around to play the sport.

England’s Sheffield FC is classified as one of the first, and oldest surviving independent football clubs, although not professional. Founded in 1857, the club initially made use of ‘Sheffield rules’, rules they’d devised themselves, and wouldn’t adopt the FA devised rules until 1878.

In terms of the oldest professional football club, another English club stakes that claim. Founded in 1862, Notts County predate the formation of the Football Association, and would go on to become a founding member of the Football League. Meanwhile, the black and white colours of their home strip would later go on to inspire Juventus’s own choice of kit colours.

Whilst England’s Notts County and Sheffield FC take most of the plaudits, some have argued that a club in Edinburgh, ‘The Foot-Ball Club’ was actually the earliest recorded club playing football of any kind, having been founded in 1824. However, the form of football they played did not resemble the association football recognised by the world today.

The First Competitions

Football Whistle with Yellow String

It’s important, once a sport is invented, and teams are created to play it, that there’s a competition on the line for these teams to try and win.

It wasn’t until eight years after the 1863 formalisation meeting, that football’s first major competition was introduced. In 1871, following a proposition by CW Alcock of a new ‘Challenge Cup’ competition for clubs belonging to the Football Association, and the eventual acceptance of this proposition, a new competition was formed: The FA Cup. Still running to this day, the FA Cup is the oldest existing football competition in world history. Inaugural winners Wanderers Football Club would go on to win the cup five times, but after a period of decline, they dissolved in 1887, before reforming in 2009.

The concept of footballing leagues wasn’t introduced to the game or the world until 1888, when the English Football League was first created. The founding members of this new league were Preston North End, Aston Villa, Derby County, Everton, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Accrington FC (not Stanley), Blackburn Rovers, Notts County, Stoke FC (later renamed Stoke City), West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Each team played each other twice, once home and once away, with two points given for a win and one point for a draw. This round-robin league format would go on to be used within the leagues of other countries, and whilst the first notion of a football league was one featuring English teams, it was an idea coming from a Scot, William McGregor, the Aston Villa director at the time.

The First International Teams, And Match

Scotland vs England Flags on Football Pitch

The two oldest national football teams in the world are England and Scotland, so as far as international football’s concerned, two countries can take plaudits for kickstarting football’s concept of international teams. First playing each other on 30th November 1872, the game ended as a 0-0 draw at the West of Scotland Cricket Club’s Ground; this match is recognised by FIFA as the first match between two international sides in the history of football.

Following this match, the other British home nations soon created national teams of their own, and in 1884 the first-ever international football tournament was created: the British Home Championship. A championship competed between four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (later Northern Ireland).

Global Expansion And The Foundation Of FIFA

Antique Globe

For a while after its 1863 standardisation, football stood as a uniquely British sport. But over time the sport spread globally, backed with the support of Brits travelling to other parts of the world and sharing the game, eventually becoming, without doubt, the biggest sport in the world.

The record for the first non-British international association in football’s history goes to Denmark, soon followed by Netherlands, who were both founded in 1889. New Zealand would follow in 1891, then Argentina in 1893, and Chile, Belgium and Switzerland in 1895.

Eventually, as the game grew, more and more countries formed their own national associations, resulting in the 1904 formation of an international footballing governing body: FIFA. The foundation of this governing body had little input from England or any other British nation, arising from a British belief that as inventors of the sport there was little reason to subordinate to an association. The founding members of football’s first-ever international governing body were France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Following the success of competitive international football matches in events such as the Olympics, it was proposed in 1928 for the creation of a World Championship tournament. A proposal was quickly accepted; Uruguay were announced as hosts of the 1930 FIFA World Cup and they went on to win the inaugural trophy. 1966 saw England eventually host and win the tournament: perhaps a fitting way to have celebrated just over a century since the FA’s creation and football’s formalisation.

So, Who Invented Football?

Football Illuminated on Dark Pitch

All in all, there is a degree of truth to the idea that England invented football. Although countries such as China take some credit for their ancient games, i.e. ‘Cuju’, we’re inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed by historian Tom Holland and therefore these ancient games cannot be wholly credited for inventing football.

The real work of inventing a sport is done by those who take action to make the rules that define what the sport actually entails, and those involved in such a role should be the ones naturally credited as the game’s inventors. Therefore, it can be said with some confidence that the Englishmen who met at the Freemason’s Tavern in 1863 should be viewed as inventors of the original version of the ‘beautiful game’ as we now know it.

However, like many past inventions such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, inventions must evolve to meet the world’s expectations and demands. Football has changed in many ways since 1863, first seen in how the Scottish ‘invented’ a more passing-oriented version of the game, then the creation of FIFA to cater to the game’s increased globalisation, and now how technologies such as goal-line technology and VAR have been implemented. But whilst inventions may change aspects of the game, the key function remains at the forefront, and in the case of football, a ball’s a ball and a goal’s a goal and that will never change.

Author: editor

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