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History of football

Throughout the history of mankind the urge to kick at stones and other objects must have inevitably led to many early activities involving kicking and running with a ball. Football-like games undoubtedly predate recorded history in all parts of the world and the earliest forms of football can only be guessed at.

Table of contents
1 Ancient games
2 Mediaeval football
3 Controversy

Ancient games

The earliest documented mention of any activity resembling football is found in a Chinese military manual written during the Han Dynasty in about 2nd century BC. It describes a practice known as "tsu chu" which involved kicking a leather ball through a hole in a piece of silk cloth strung between two 30 foot poles. It was not a game as such but more of a spectacle for the amusement of the Emperor and it may have been performed as many as 3000 years ago.

Another ball-kicking game of Far Eastern origin that may have been influenced by tsu chu is "kemari" which known to have been played within the Japanese imperial court in Kyoto from about 600AD. In kemari several individuals stand in a circle and kick a ball to each other, trying not to let the ball drop to the ground. The game survived through many years but appears to have died out sometime before the mid 19th century. In 1903 in a bid to restore ancient traditions the game was revived and it can now be seen played for the benefit of tourists at a number of festivals.

The Greeks and Romans are known to have played many ball games some of which involved the use of the feet. The Roman writer Cicero describes the case of a man who was killed whilst having a shave when a ball was kicked into a barbers shop. The Roman game of Harpastu is believed to have been adapted from a team game known as αρπαστον(episkyros) or Pheninda that is mentioned by Greek playwright, Antiphanes (388-311BC) and later referred to by Clement of Alexandria. The game appears to have vaguely resembled rugby.

There are a number of less well-documented references to similar ball games all around the world. William Strachey of the Jamestown settlement is the first to record a game played by the Native Americans called "Pahsaheman" in 1610. In Australia, Robert Brough-Smyth's book "The Aborigines of Victoria" published in 1878 quotes from a report made by a Mr Richard Thomas in around 1841 who witnessed Australian aborigine splaying a ball game called "marn grook". Mr Thomas describes how the foremost player will drop kick a ball made from the skin of a possum and how other players leap into the air in order to catch it. The game may well have had an influence on the modern Australian Rules Football. These games and others may well stretch far back into antiquity and have influenced football over the centuries. However, the route towards the development of modern football games appears to lie in Western Europe and particularly England.

Mediaeval football

The first description of football in England is given by William FitzStephen (c1174-1183) [1]. He described the activities of London youths during the annual festival of Shrove Tuesday. "After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents".

The game played England at this time may have arrived with the Roman occupation, but there is little evidence to indicate this. Reports of a similar game being played in Brittany, Normandy and Picardy known as "Choule" or "Soule" suggest that it could have arrived with the Norman Conquest. It is possible that the Normans also took the game to Ireland. The first reference to football in Ireland occurs in The Statutes of Galway of 1527, which allowed the playing of football and archery but banned hurling and other sports.

The Middle Ages saw a huge rise in popularity of annual Shrovetide football matches throughout Europe and particularly in England. These chaotic games would be played between neighbouring towns and villages in which an unlimited number of players on opposing teams would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag an inflated pig's bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. A legend that these games in England evolved from a more ancient and bloody ritual of kicking the "Dane's Head" is probably less than truthful. Shrovetide games are still played in a number of English towns such as Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Sedgefield in County Durham.

In the 16th century, the city of Florence celebrated the period between Epiphany and Lent by playing a game known as "o Calcio storico" ("kickball in costume") in the Piazza della Novere or the Piazza di Santo Croce. The young aristocrats of the city would dress up in fine silk costumes and embroil themselves in cross between football and wrestling. It was a mass brawl in which kicking, punching, shoulder charges, and hitting below the belt were all allowed, it probably originated as a military training exercise. The most famous match took place on the of February 17, 1530. As the troops of Charles V, (Holy Roman Emperor) were besieging Florence a game of "calcio" was organised as a show of defiance. The last time the game is known to have been played was in January 1739. It was revived in May 1930 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of this famous match and is still played as a tourist attraction today. In Italy 1580 Count Giovanni de' Bardi di Vernio wrote "Discorso sopra 'l giuco del Calcio Fiorentino" This is sometimes credited as the earliest known published rules of any football game.

Most of the early references to the game speak simply of "ball play" or "playing at ball" and not "football" leading to speculation that the games played at the time did not necessarily involve the ball being kicked. However, in 1424, James I of Scotland issued an edict to ban the playing of "fute-ball". Later on the modern spelling appeared in Shakespeare's play King Lear: "Nor tripped neither, you base football player" (Act I Scene 4). He also mentions the game in A Comedy of Errors (Act II Scene 1):

Am I so round with you as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.
All of which seems to imply that the game involved kicking a leather ball between players.


Football has been the subject of countless attempts to ban it. In England alone there were over 30 Royal and local edicts prohibiting the game. King Edward II was so troubled by the unruliness of football in London that on April 13 1314 he issued a proclamation banning it. It read -Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future. - Edward III imposed a similar ban June 12 1349, but his concern was of a practical nature. Football and other recreations distracted the populace from practising archery, and after the great loss of life that had occurred during the Black Death, England needed as many archers as possible.

The game featured in similar attempts to ban recreational sport across Europe. In France it was banned by Phillippe V in 1319 and Charles V in 1369. In Scotland it was banned by James I of Scotland in 1424. Later attempts at banning the game in England (notably by Richard II in 1389, Henry IV in 1401, and Henry VIII in 1540) and Scotland (JamesII in 1457) all failed to curb the people's desire to play the game. Only Oliver Cromwell had any success in firmly suppressing the game, which then became even more popular following the Restoration in 1660. Charles II of England gave the game royal approval in 1681 when he attended a fixture between the Royal Household and Duke of Albermarle's servants.

Continued efforts to try ban the game at a local level forced the game off the streets. In 1827 the Duke of Northumberland allowed the annual Alnwick Shrove Tuesday game to go ahead by providing a field for the game to be played upon and presenting the ball before the match - a ritual that continues to this day. In 1835 the Highways Act banned the playing of football on public highways, with a maximum penalty of forty shillings.