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PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 2:14 am

Melvyn Bragg talks about the rise of the "beautiful game" and how it has become the world's greatest team sport.

The game was invented in England. The first ever international match was between Scotland and England in 1872 at Hamilton Park in Glasgow. It was a 0-0 draw.

Since then, it has become a global phenomenon.

Melvyn Bragg on the rise of the beautiful game
6th July 2006

Italians celebrate after scoring against Germany.

Global passion: Football has become a worldwide obsession and a colossal moneyspinner

Having been born in 1939, I would bet that the first game I played was football. In the kitchen. With a cardboard box, an empty tin and an uncontrollable rubber ball.

When I went to the local primary school, playtimes were for football, and after school was more time for football, sometimes deep into the twilight when the ball was a blur and the jackets for goalposts were soaked with evening dew.

Cricket took its proper place in the short Northern summer and there was a time for chestnuts, a time for hoops, a time for marbles and a time for bicycles, but football was all the time. A ball, a bunch of boys, flat ground, two equal sides, game on.

When my father came back from the war he took me to see the local professional team, Carlisle United. I was already a follower of my small-town team, the Wigton Wanderers, who copied the Arsenal strip of the 1930s. Clearly that was a divine omen.

Through the power of magic and geography, when my son turned eight and wanted to support a team, our nearest, and therefore our natural local team, was and is Arsenal.

The past 18 years as a season ticketholder have been, and continue to be, a carnival of earthly delight.

Football is not only a game of skill but also a game of chance, of elegance, and also of strength, a game of long waiting and a game of rapid action.

Drama on a field of green. And the game, played worldwide, came into existence only because of a small book, written in 1863.

Scotland VS England, 1872. The World's first international football match. It finished 0-0.

Without that book of football laws, the game would never have been invented and the world would be a much poorer place.

The game of football has, over the past century, totally changed the worlds of sport, the media and leisure. It was able to do that solely because of a book of laws — more commonly called rules — written by a group of 11 former public school men in 1863 in London.

Without that book ‘the beautiful game', as the great Brazilian footballer Pele called it, would not have kicked off.

Because of that book and the proselytising enthusiasm of British sailors and merchants and adventurers on their expeditions around the planet, it is now estimated that this year — 2006 — eight out of ten people in the world will have watched something of the World Cup being held in Germany.

Football is played worldwide by more than 1.5 million teams and 300,000 clubs. This does not include the hundreds and thousands of schools and youth clubs.

There are more than five million officials involved in the game. More than 20 million women play the game and their numbers are growing.

A global game

It has become part of the national consciousness of almost every country in the world. It would be fair to say that it has become more than just a game: it attracts tribal followings, it produces icons, it provokes passions sometimes not too far removed from extreme politics and devotion which has religious connotations.

It is a colossal moneyspinner and money-eater on an ever-increasing scale. It drives television channels and radio stations and newspapers national, local and specialised. It is a form of universal language, perhaps the most effective form. It has caused at least one war (the Balkans War) and many battles, often tragic, off the pitch. It has always triggered outbursts of local and national joy, pride, unity. It is colour blind and its influence on breaking down racial prejudice has been strong and widely noted.

And all this flowed from the meeting of a few Victorian Oxbridge graduates in a pub in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London in 1863. Before the afternoon was out, they had called themselves "The Football Association" and the Book Of Rules was on its way.

This short book made it possible for everyone everywhere to play the same game. Before 1863, football had been a riot or a confusion. There are several versions of how the game began. One is that it has its origin in the Roman city of Chester where, half a millennium after the Romans departed from Britain, the Anglo-Saxons played a sort of football with the heads of the conquered Danes.

Middle ages

But Professor James Walvin, author of The People's Game, has little truck with any of this. "Games of football," he writes, "were ubiquitous, spontaneous and traditional. The killing of animals provided people with bladders, unsuitable for most other purposes, but ideal to inflate and play with."

Football emerges more substantially in the written records in the Middle Ages.

Professor Walvin writes: "The game was simply an ill-defined contest between indeterminate crowds of youths, often played in riotous fashion, in tightly restricted city streets, provoking uproar and damage to property and attracting to the fray anyone with an inclination to violence."

The art of dribbling

Help and eventually salvation came from the English public schools. What happened at these schools was that the game took on not one but several shapes. In Charterhouse School, for instance, which was then housed in an old Carthusian monastery in London — a very confined space — the art or craft of "dribbling" the ball was developed.

On the vast playing fields of Eton, the ball could be kicked high and long, and it was. At Rugby between the 1820s and the 1840s, the boys caught and ran with the ball and began to develop what would become a separate game but was then called, as they all were, football (it became rugby).

There's a passage in the Labour Force Survey Quarterly Review of 1863 which reads: "The fascination of this gentle pastime is its mimic war, and it is waged with the individual prowess of the Homeric conflicts.

"The play is played out by boys with that dogged determination to win, that endurance of pain, that bravery of combative spirit, by which the adult is trained to face the cannon-ball with equal alacrity."

The problems arose when the boys from different schools went to Oxford and Cambridge, wanted to continue to play football and found that because different schools followed different rules, all hell broke loose.

There was no difference at that stage between what we now call football and rugby. It became common practice to play half a match by one side's rules, the second half by the other's. That's how half-time evolved.

The Book Of Rules was started by a committee — men from a team later to become the Wanderers (a mix of Oxford and Cambridge men), N. N. Kilburn ("N. N." standing for No Names), Barnes, War Office, Crusaders, Furnival House Blackheath, Kingston School, Surbiton, Blackheath School and Charterhouse School.

By the end of the afternoon it was announced that "the clubs represented at this meeting now form themselves into an association to be called 'The Football Association'". The process was launched, but it took another half-dozen meetings to classify and codify what became the Rule Book.

The central problem was whether a player could pick up the ball and run with it. At what proved to be the final meeting, the laws of the game were formally accepted and Association Football was born.

Originally, there were 13 rules. A few more were added as experience demanded, but those 13 were all that was necessary to set alight what became the world's favourite game.

In the mid-19th century, textile workers in the north were given Saturday afternoon off. By the 1860s, several other trades had followed. And some, as in Sheffield, gave Wednesday as the half-day. (A team was created of men on their half-day, and it became Sheffield Wednesday). It helped the big industries because they could overhaul their machines with a skeleton workforce on that half-day. Clerks and shop assistants had to wait longer for this privilege.

There was now time for the game. Now football began what became a pandemic. Factory teams sprang up in Britain, as did pub teams, police teams, church teams, town teams, schoolboy teams, village teams. Spectators began to organise themselves around their local teams. Out of the old playing fields with carts and wagons drawn around them, to provide better views for the better off, came new stadiums with cheap tickets.

Philanthropic owners

Much of the money was put back into the clubs by the early gentlemanly owners still motivated by philanthropy. Early commercial developments included turnstiles, numbered tickets, telegraphic terminals for posting results to pubs, and changing rooms.

There were rewards, money prizes and payments to players who were losing paid work by turning out for a local team. Travel had to be paid for. The day of the professional came upon football.

For almost 30 years after the Rule Book was written, the gentlemen amateurs to whom it owed so much continued to dominate the game. The FA Cup was usually won by the Old Etonians or by the Wanderers.

If we are looking for a critical turning point, 1891 is a good candidate. In that year, the professional Blackburn Rovers defeated the Old Etonians in the FA Cup.

By 1914 football was being used for recruitment by the government, whose predecessors had condemned it as weakening the readiness for war. In pre-conscription days, the government decided to use the football ground as a recruiting ground.

By November 1914, more than 100,000 men had volunteered through football organisations. Two thousand out of the 5,000 professional footballers had joined up.

And football was played up to the front lines — employed as a cheap and effective way to keep the men fit. Argentina was the first country outside Britain to have a national championship. A year later, the movement hit Italy. In 1920, the first football pools coupon was introduced, in 1927 the first league match was broadcast on radio, and in 1930 there was the first World Cup (Uruguay 4 Argentina 2).

Football drove out other games, which was often a cause for anxiety and even mourning. The World Cup will be what it always is: a carnival of peoples, the one place where Swedes, Russians and Tunisians will hug and kiss and swop shirts on neutral soil.

Soccer has many uses, and one of them, fleeting as it may be, is universal love. Footballers are now compared to Greek gods. Football stadiums are often called the cathedrals of our day. Football is routinely described as an art, its theatricality, its human triumphs and tragedies thought by some far to surpass the dramatic feasts available on the stage.

It can obsess children, as I know, and continue to obsess them when, as apprehensive adults, they turn up to watch their team and are mesmerised by a game of such simplicity and yet such complicated possibilities.

A game of such dynamism confined to such a small space, and of such a power to affect thousands and move them to roars of rage, of delight, even of ecstasy, that you can only wonder once again at the irradiating impact of a book, and such a small book, a Book Of Rules put together in a pub in London by a dozen English gentleman enthusiasts in 1863.

Extracted from The Rules Of Association Football, 1863 (adapted from Twelve Books That Changed The World by Melvyn Bragg, Hodder, £20), published by the Bodleian Library at £5.99. To order a copy, tel 01767 604973;

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