The ultimate history of football, in all its forms

Scholarly work charts the development of football. By ANTON RIPPON

Like the wheel, football must have been invented in lots of different places. Just as no one person would have single-handedly found that boiled eggs taste better than raw ones, surely no single group of people would have been alone in discovering the delights of kicking — or throwing — around a spherical object and eventually developing that into an organised game.

Of course, you have to be careful what you mean by “football”. The word means different things to people in different countries.

Indeed, it can mean different things to people in the same country. Which is why Graham Hughes, a sports historian and freelance writer based in Chester, came to write A Develyshe Pastime: A History Of Football In All Its Forms.

The book takes its title from a 1583 pamphlet in which a Puritan, Philip Stubbes, described football as one of the “develyshe pastimes” that were corrupting England. Football, said Stubbes, was more “a friendlie kinde of fight than a play or recreation, a bloody and murthering practice than a felowly sporte or pastime”. And he never saw Leeds play.

Hughes has certainly done his research. This weighty book opens with an account of every kind of “football” known to have been played, almost back to the time when Adam was a lad.

The earliest was most likely tsu chu (meaning “kick ball”) which was played in China at least from around 2000 BC and possibly as early as 5000 BC. The ball was made from animal hair or fur stitched inside leather panels. The goal was a net, only 30 to 40 centimetres in diameter, strung almost 9 metres high between two bamboo poles. This was clearly a game for highly skilled players: they had to keep the ball off the ground but could not handle it.

Tsu chu eventually found its way to Japan, where it inspired the game of kemari, a form of “keepy-uppy” played on a pitch typically marked out by four trees, a cherry, maple, willow and pine (pictured right), and Hughes has also unearthed all manner of other football variants, from tlachtli, played by the Aztecs with a ball made from rubber, to epsikyros, a cross between modern rugby and handball and played in ancient Greece. The Romans took another Greek game, harpaston, named after a verb meaning to seize or snatch, and developed it into the faster, more physical harpastum, played between teams of between five and 12 players who could tackle a ball carrier by pushing him to the ground or dragging him down.

But the real thrust of Hughes’s excellent book is to take the “mob” football that gave 16th century English peasants their recreation, and then trace the path that this eventually took as an organised game through the English public school system and into the universities, thereafter to be taken up by a wider public and spread around the world in various forms.

According to Hughes, sports such as soccer, both codes of rugby, Gaelic, American (and Canadian) football, and Australian Rules all have their roots in the type of game still played each Shrovetide in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, when the Up’ards and the Down’ards try to goal the ball on a “pitch” about three miles long (sometimes they can play from 2pm until 10pm and still no one has scored).

The book is full of great quotes from all manner of people. My favourite is the description of one of American football’s more dangerous manoeuvres, written in 1906 by Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California:
“Two rigid, rampart-like lines of human flesh have been created, one of defense, the other of offense, and behind the latter is established a catapult to fire through a porthole opened in the offensive rampart a missile composed of four or five human bodies globulated about a carried football with a maximum of initial velocity against the presumably weakest point in the opposing rampart.” No need for blood capsules there, then.

After some scene setting, each chapter of Hughes’ meticulously researched book effectively serves as a primer for anyone wanting to know more about a particular version of football, how the rules (occasionally, of course, “the laws”) have developed and how the structure of the game has changed. One recurring fact is that television, with its tens of millions of pounds and dollars, has had an effect like no other on football in almost all its forms.

The FA Premier League is the prime example but I found the chapter on rugby league particularly interesting in that regard. In 1927 (and again in 1948) the RFL protested to the BBC for neglecting to announce results on the radio. As recently as 1976, there were bitter complaints about the way the corporation presented Rugby League; Eddie Waring’s commentaries were a particular source of annoyance.

Yet less than 20 years later, BSkyB was dramatically changing the face of rugby league, the price for its pot of gold being that the sport was forced from its traditional winter season to a summer one.

However, of all the sports that Hughes has investigated, Canadian Football has probably suffered the most ups and downs, with a prolific record of shooting itself in the foot. Not least when an ex-CFL commissioner sued (unsuccessfully as it happened) the organisation for wrongful dismissal following a blazing public row with Toronto Argonauts officials over a range of issues, including their plans to stage a wet T-shirt contest as pre-game entertainment.

Those Chinese certainly started something with their little net and bamboo poles.

A Develyshe Pastime: A History Of Football In All Its Forms by Graham Hughes (SportsBooks Ltd, £17.99). You can order the book via Amazon by clicking here.

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