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History of Football - The Britons

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. How did it start and why is it so popular ?
To answer those questions, we'll go back in time.


Similar to a game depicted in ancient Egyptian cave drawings, dated 2000 BC, hurling is considered to be the oldest Irish game. The first written record of this pre-Christian sport is a mention in the Brehon Laws, compiled during the 8th century. It's difficult to find out where the sport originated from, maybe it was native to Ireland or brought over from one of the many tribes that conquered or settled in the Emerald Isle.

There are two theories that link the ancient Irish to Egypt :

First, and most probably, is that hurling traveled with the nomadic tribe known as the Celts when they first landed in Ireland around 600 BC. Linguistically the Celts belong to an Indo-European culture, and it is known that they once lived in the Semitic areas.

Another theory leads us back to the ancient Milesian legends, which are written in "Lebor Gabala Erren" (The Book of the Talking Dead). According to the legends, the Irish are descended from the kingdom of Scythia and its king, Feinius Farsaid. He and his son, Nel, went to Asia to work on the Tower of Nimrod (Babel), after which they returned and opened a school of languages. This school was so well known that the Pharaoh of Egypt invited Nel to come and teach his people the new languages of the world. While in Egypt, Nel married the Pharaoh's daughter Scota and settled down. Years later, after the Pharaoh drowned while pursuing "Moses and his band of Hebrews", Nel's great-grandson Sru left Egypt with his son, Heber Scot and returned to Scythia, where Heber Scot became king. It is entirely possible that Sru and Heber Scot brought the game back with them.

The only definite thing we know about hurling is that this ancient game is the model for most Celtic sports, including camogie, a female version, shinty, bandy or banty, hockey, gaelic football, and modern hurling.


Hurling has a long history, its first mention from about 1272 BC, The Battle of Moytura, where the Tuatha de Danaan fought the Fir Bolg. They played until their bones were broken and bruised and they fell outstretched on the earth. Then the victors (the Fir Bolg) fell upon their opponents and slew them. There are many orally recounted stories concerning hurling (such as the Battle of Moytura) from the time period of the Iron Age Celts. These were passed down and finally recorded in Christian times. The earliest recorded mention of hurling is from the 8th century Brehon laws, where it is described as a manner of warfare by which to settle disputes and disagreements. These disputes were between neighboring villages and a game could consist of hundreds of players. Hurling could be a violent sport, and the Brehon laws provided for compensation to the family of a man lost in a hurling match. Over time, hurling also became a fete sport and matches were played during Celtic festivals.


The medieval game was played on a field, measuring in length 130-145 metres and in width 80-90 meters, with two teams each trying to maneuver a small ball (sliotar) with their sticks (hurleys or caman) through an opposite goal, the posts 6,5 meters apart with a crossbar 2,5 meters high. The aim is to score points or goals by driving the ball with stick, hands or feet between the posts. Various historical sources describe a ball that was made of bronze, wood covered with leather, or hair covered with rope or wood. The hurley was ideally made of ash wood, although other woods were also used. The end of the hurley was tapered in order to make it easier to scoop the sliotar off the ground and a metal band was wrapped around the end of it. The handle of the hurley was narrowed and cut to the length preferred by the player. Distinctions were made between a proper match (fianchluiche) or a casual game (ruidilse cluche). Ancient fouls included "sandwiching" a player (two players on one), throwing the hurley, intentionally hitting a player with the hurley, and laying on the sliotar. Variations of the basic rules were decided before the match and agreed upon by both sides. Wrestling, jostling, and body-checking were all permissible.


Although the game often became violent and sometimes turned into small battles, hurling became part of Irish culture.  In 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to try to prevent the Anglo-Normans from picking up Irish habits and culture.  The Statutes outlawed English/Irish marriages, and forbade the English from using the Irish language, customs and laws.  Of course this lead to a small problem because hurling was very popular with the Normans.  Although hurling was banned, for both the Irish and the Norman English, games were still played.  Finally in the 16th century a hurling ban was actually followed.  The Galway Statutes, dated at 1527, almost eliminated the game for good.  The statutes named "hokie", a game defined as "hurling a little ball with sticks", on the list of prohibited games.  It is believed that hurling was prohibited because of its violent nature and the fact that small bloody battles usually followed a game.  In it's place the Irish began to play Gaelic Football, which is a hurling derived form of soccer. Hurling wasn't revived until the 18th century.  The small hurling revival of the 18th century became known as the golden age.  For the first time organized games were played, and inter-barony and inter-county leagues were formed.  Landlords promoted the game and supported their teams.  The players followed a strict code of honor on the field, and very few battles broke out on the field, unlike the ancient games.  In the late part of the century, due to external factors, the gentry pulled their support from the game, and this, being timed with the Great Famine, ended the revival.  The late 19th century brought about a successful return of the game.  With the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, hurling was once again the official game of Ireland.  The GAA organized local games, created leagues, and for the first time created standardize rules for the game.  The first Senior Hurling Final, or the World Series for the Irish Hurling Teams, was played in 1887.  The late 19th century also saw rivals of "shinty" (= a Scottish version of "hurling") and "bandy" (= a Welsh version played in Northern England)  as well as the emergence of hockey.


The Romans introduced "Harpastum" in ancient Britain (Pritan) not long after their invasion. Just like in Gaul (northern part of France), the Celts, Picts and Scots created their own version when the Romans pulled back to Rome. The game of football generally flourished in England from around the 8th century onwards. The game was incredibly popular with the working classes and there were considerable regional variations of the game throughout the country. Games were normally violent and disorganized affairs with any number of players, it was not uncommon for 1000 people to play in a single game. Accross the Channel, Celts occupied Brittany and played regularly a game named "seoult", also known as "soule" or "choule". Probably, when The Duke of Normandy, William I The Conqueror, invaded England (Battle of Hastings, 1066), the French game "choule" was introduced in South England. The game was usually played at festivities and celebrations. Over many centuries, the game changed name from "hurling over country" or "hurling the goal" to "knappan / knappen" and "foeth ball", then "fute balle" and finally "football". By the 11th century, games were often played between rival villages and the "pitch" could be an incredibly large area. The "pitch" was not a defined size with a parameter, but included streets, fields, village squares and anything else that got in the way. The level of violence within the game was astonishing. Players were kicked and punched regularly by opponents. In addition to any personal injury that occurred, countless property items were destroyed in the course of a match. Fields were often ruined, as were fences and hedges. Damage also occurred to people's houses and businesses within the main streets of the village or wherever the game travelled in its course. For people living within the cities, football was still an alien concept and considered to be a "rural custom". The ball was usually a pig's bladder and the game is better compared as "street rugby". In Chester, the head of a dead Viking was used to celebrate a recent victory over the invaders. However in the second half of the 12th century football had established itself in London. By 1175 an annual competition had been established in the capital and every "Shrove Tuesday" (= also known as "The Pancake Day", the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent) the game created huge interest and gained further popularity. The future development of the urban game is not well known but some early records do mention the violent nature of the game within cities, there is even a mention of a player being stabbed to death by an opponent. Records also point to women being involved in the game during the 12th century.

Although the game was gaining popularity amongst commoners, it was still largely disliked by the aristocracy and royalty. In fact on 13th April 1314 King Edward II actually banned football from London where street matches had become incredibly popular. King Edward himself proclaimed : "For as much as there is great noise in the city, caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils might arise which God forbid, we command and forbid, on behalf of the king, a pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future". The threat of imprisonment for playing football actually made no difference whatsoever, the game continued to be played with much vigor. King Edward II was commonly regarded as an incompetent king particularly due to the defeat of the English Army by the Scots in the Battle of Barnockborn. This ultimately led to parliament forcing the king to give up his throne to his son in 1327.

King Edward III proved no more of a football fan than his father and passed tough new laws in 1331 banning football further. During the 100 years war with France, which began in 1338 and lasted until 1453, the royal court of England found football most distasteful. Edward III, followed by Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V all passed further laws barring football from the realm. One of the main reasons for this hard line taken was the very real fear that the English population were spending far too much time playing football. This prevented them from practicing archery, a key area of defense during the 100 years war. Edward III passed the following proclamation in 1363 banning all sports and enforcing archery practice.

The King to the Lord-lieutenant of Kent greeting :

Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practice archery, whence by God's help, it is well known that high honor and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises, and that now skill in the use of the bow having fallen almost wholly into disrepute, our subjects give themselves up to the throwing of stones and of wood and of iron, and some to handball and football and hockey, and others to coursing and cock-fights, and even to other unseemly sports less useful and manly, whereby our realm, which God forbid, will soon, it would appear, be void of archers.

We, wishing that a fitting remedy be found in this matter, do hereby ordain, that in all places in your country, liberties or no liberties, wheresoever's you shall deem fit, a proclamation be made to this effect : that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practice archery.

Moreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing, handball, football, or hockey, coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games.

"Edward the Third 1363"

With the exception of the war it is quite simple to see why royalty disliked football so much. It had originated from the commoners, it was a game of the people and had absolutely nothing to do with the aristocracy at the time. After all, the game didn't even have an official name, it was referred to as "ball play" or "playing at ball". The term "football" was used in England for the first time in the 15th century. However it did not imply that the ball was kicked with the foot, rather that the game was played "on foot". This was not in keeping with royalty-approved sports which all involved riding on horseback. During the course of the 15th century most of the Scottish Kings saw fit to ban football. The most famous was the decree passed by parliament and convened by James I in 1424, "That na man play at the Fute-ball". Again, this had no effect on the popularity of the game as the public took great delight in the rough and tumble of the game.

During the 16th century there were further attempts to contain the spread of football. "The Puritan" movement during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1608) took up the cause against football. They believed that "frivolous amusements" were time wasting exercises and inherently evil. One Puritan leader, Philip Stubbes (1555-1610), wrote extensively about such evils. He constantly criticized the theatre and acting in general. His other favorite subject was football. One particular issue was that football was played on Sundays, the Sabbath and day of rest. In his book "The Anatomie of the Abuses" (1583) he severely attacked both these areas of entertainment.

During Elizabethan times the game still maintained a huge level of support and participation despite the numerous laws passed to ban the game. In fact football found one very prominent supporter in Richard Mulcaster (1531-1611), headmaster of the famous Merchant Taylor’s school and St. Paul’s. He publicly declared that football had many educational benefits as well as improving health and strength. In his view the game just needed a little reorganization such as a limited number of players and a referee. In his personal publication of 1581, "Positions Wherein Those Primitive Circumstances Be Examined, Which Are Necessarie for the Training up of Children", Richard Mulcaster wrote of the many benefits of football. Football historians have referred to Richard Mulcaster as "the greatest sixteenth century advocate of football" which can be considered quite fair in a time when playing football could lead to imprisonment.

References to the game of football became more and more widespread in England at the time. Even the great William Shakespeare referred to football in his writings. In King Lear (Act I - Scene IV) Kent taunts Oswald by calling him a "You base foot-ball player". In Comedy of Errors (1592, Act II - Scene 1) Shakespeare writes :

"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".

By the 17th century, the Kings of England were still trying to rid the land of football. James I outlawed the game from his royal court because it was, "meeter for lameing than making able the user thereof" (the game ended with too many injuries). However the significant factor is that the nobility within the royal court now appreciated and enjoyed football. Even clerics of the church started to play. Eventually with the bans having no effect on the football playing public, James I reversed his decision to ban football. In 1633, the Church of England followed suit and issued formal approval to play football. The only successful banning of football took place during the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration (1660). Even though Oliver Cromwell was a keen footballer in his youth, his ban on Sunday football remained in force for over thirty years.

In 1801, the author Joseph Strutt published "The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England" which gave an insight into football in the 1700’s. He described two teams of equal numbers who lined up between two goals that were 80-100 yards apart. The goals themselves were two sticks in the ground that were approximately a yard apart. Strutt also added : "The ball, which is commonly made up of a blown bladder and cased in leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved, the game is won". So it seemed as if a set of rules surrounding the game was beginning to develop.

During the 19th century, football was very popular among the factory workers, citizens, schoolboys and many others. This was the beginning of the creation of an organization with rules and competitions. But that's another part of "history of soccer".

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Page updated on... Friday, July 25, 2014 @ 23:06:04 -0700 PM - GMT
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