English public schools
Match at Winchester College around 1840.
The earliest evidence that games resembling football were being played at English public schools — mainly attended by boys from the upper, upper-middle and professional classes — comes from the Vulgaria by William Horman in 1519. Horman had been headmaster at Eton and Winchester Colleges and his Latin textbook includes a translation exercise with the phrase “We wyll playe with a ball full of wynde”.
There is evidence that sophisticated games resembling the modern codes were being played in Britain by the early 17th century. In 1633, David Wedderburn, a teacher from Aberdeen, described one such match: “Let’s pick sides. Those who are on the outside, come over here. Kick off, so that we can begin the match… Pass it here.”
The first specific mention of football at public schools can be found in a Latin poem by Robert Matthew, a Winchester scholar from 1643 to 1647. He describes how “…we may play quoits, or hand-ball, or bat-and-ball, or football; these games are innocent and lawful…”. Nugae Etonenses (1766) by T. Frankland also mentions the “Football Fields” at Eton.
By the early 19th century, (before the Factory Act of 1850), most working class people in Britain had to work six days a week, often for over twelve hours a day. They had neither the time nor the inclination to engage in sport for recreation and, at the time, many children were part of the labour force. Feast day football on the public highway was at an end. Thus the public school boys, who were free from constant toil, became the inventors of organised football games with formal codes of rules. These gradually evolved into the modern football games that we know today.
Football had come to be adopted by a number of public schools as a way of encouraging competitiveness and keeping youths fit. Each school drafted their own rules to suit the dimensions of their playing field. The rules varied widely between different schools and were changed over time with each new intake of pupils. Soon, two schools of thought about how football should be played emerged. Some schools favoured a game in which the ball could be carried (as at Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham), whilst others preferred a game where kicking and dribbling the ball was promoted (as at Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse). The division into these two camps was partly the result of circumstances in which the games were played. At Charterhouse and Westminster the boys were confined to playing their ball game within the cloisters making the rough and tumble of the handling game difficult.
William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby school, is said to have “showed a fine disregard for the rules of football, as played in his time” by picking up the ball and running to the opponents’ goal in 1823. This act is popularly said to be the beginnings of Rugby football, but the evidence for this bold act does not stand up to close examination and most sports historians believe the story to be apocryphal. Nevertheless, by 1841 (some sources say 1842), running with the ball had become acceptable at Rugby, as long as a player gathered the ball on the full or from a bounce, he was not offside and he did not pass the ball.
The boom in rail transport in Britain during the 1840s meant that people were able to travel further and with less inconvenience than they ever had before. Inter-school sporting competitions became possible. While local rules for athletics could be easily understood by visiting schools, it was nearly impossible for schools to play each other at football, as each school played by its own rules.
During this period, the Rugby school rules appear to have spread at least as far, perhaps further, than the other schools’ games. For example, two clubs which claim to be the world’s first and/or oldest football club, in the sense of one which is not part of a school or university, are both stongholds of rugby football: the Barnes Club, said to have been founded in 1839, and Guy’s Hospital Football Club, reportedly founded in 1843. Neither date nor the variety of football played is well-documented, but such claims nevertheless allude to the popularity of rugby before other modern codes emerged.
In 1845, three boys at Rugby school were tasked with codifying the rules then being used at the school. These were the first set of written rules (or code) for any form of football. This further assisted the spread of the Rugby game.
The Cambridge Rules
In 1848 at Cambridge University, Mr. H. de Winton and Mr. J.C. Thring, who were both formerly at Shrewsbury School, called a meeting at Trinity College, Cambridge with 12 other representatives from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury. An eight-hour meeting produced what amounted to the first set of modern rules, known as the Cambridge Rules. No copy of these rules now exists, but a revised version from circa 1856 is held in the library of Shrewsbury School. The rules clearly favour the kicking game. Handling was only allowed for a player to take a clean catch entitling them to a free kick and there was a primitive offside rule, disallowing players from “loitering” around the opponents’ goal. However, the Cambridge Rules were not widely adopted.
Other developments in the 1850s
The increasing interest and development of the various English football games was shown in 1851, when William Gilbert, a shoemaker from Rugby, exhibited both round and oval-shaped balls at the Great Exhibition in London.
Dublin University Football Club — founded at Trinity College, Dublin in 1854 and later famous as a bastion of the Rugby School game — is arguably the world’s oldest football club in any code.
Sheffield Football Club also has a claim to be the world’s oldest football club, in the sense of a club not attached to a school or university. It was founded by former Harrow School pupils Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, in 1857. Creswick and Prest devised their own version of football: the Sheffield Rules. There were some similarities to the Cambridge Rules, but players were allowed to push or hit the ball with their hands, and there was no offside rule at all, so that players known as ‘kick throughs’ could be permanently positioned near the opponents’ goal. In 1867 the Sheffield Football Association was formed by a number of clubs in the local area and the Sheffield clubs continued to play by their own rules until they agreed to fall in with the FA rules in 1877.
By the end of the 1850s, many clubs had been formed throughout the English-speaking world, to play various codes of football.
Australian rules football
An Australian rules football match at the Richmond Paddock, Melbourne, in 1866. (A wood engraving by Robert Bruce.)
Tom Wills began to develop Australian football in Melbourne during 1858. Wills had been educated in England, at Rugby School and had played cricket for Cambridge University. The extent to which Wills was directly influenced by British and Irish football games is unknown, but there were similarities between some of them and his game. There were pronounced similarities between Wills’s game and Gaelic football (as it would be codified in 1887). It appears that Australian football also has some similarities to the Indigenous Australian game of Marn Grook (see above).
The Melbourne Football Club was also founded in 1858 and is the oldest surviving Australian football club, but the rules it used during its first season are unknown. The club’s rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian Rules. They were drawn up at the Parade Hotel, East Melbourne on 17 May, by Wills, W.J. Hammersley, J.B. Thompson and Thomas Smith (some sources include H.C.A. Harrison). These men had similar backgrounds to Wills and their code also had pronounced similarities to the Sheffield rules, most notably in the absence of an offside rule (although the similarities were probably coincidental). A free kick was awarded for a mark (clean catch). However, running while holding the ball was allowed and although it was not specified in the rules, an oval ball (like those later used in rugby) was used. The club had a strong and long-standing association with the Melbourne Cricket Club and cricket ovals — which vary in size and are much larger than the fields used in other forms of football — became the standard playing field. The 1859 rules did not include some elements which would soon become important to the game, such as the requirement to bounce the ball while running.
Australian rules is sometimes said to be the first form of football to be codified but — as was the case in all kinds of football at the time, there was no official body supporting the rules — and play varied from one club to another. By 1866, however, several other clubs in the Colony of Victoria had agreed to play an updated version of the Melbourne FC rules, which were later known as “Victorian Rules” and/or “Australasian Rules”. The formal name of the code later became Australian rules football (and, more recently, Australian football).
The Football Association
The first football international, Scotland versus England. Once kept by the Rugby Football Union as an early example of rugby football.
During the early 1860s, there were increasing attempts in England to unify and reconcile the various public school games. In 1862, J. C. Thring, who had been one of the driving forces behind the original Cambridge Rules, was a master at Uppingham School and he issued his own rules of what he called “The Simplest Game” (these are also known as the Uppingham Rules). In early October 1863 another new revised version of the Cambridge Rules was drawn up by a seven member committee representing former pupils from Harrow, Shrewsbury, Eton, Rugby, Marlborough and Westminster.
On the evening of October 26, 1863, representatives of several football clubs in the Greater London area met at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street. This was the first meeting of The Football Association (FA). It was the world’s first official football body. Charterhouse was the only school which accepted invitations to attend. The first meeting resulted in the issuing of a request for representatives of the public schools to join the association. With the exception of Thring at Uppingham, most schools declined. In total, six meetings of the FA were held between October and December 1863. After the third meeting, a draft set of rules were published by the FA. However, at the beginning of the fourth meeting, attention was drawn to the recently-published Cambridge Rules of 1863. The Cambridge rules differed from the draft FA rules in two significant areas; namely running with (carrying) the ball and hacking (kicking opposing players in the shins). The two contentious FA rules were as follows:
- IX. A player shall be entitled to run with the ball towards his adversaries’ goal if he makes a fair catch, or catches the ball on the first bound; but in case of a fair catch, if he makes his mark he shall not run.
- X. If any player shall run with the ball towards his adversaries’ goal, any player on the opposite side shall be at liberty to charge, hold, trip or hack him, or to wrest the ball from him, but no player shall be held and hacked at the same time.
At the fifth meeting a motion was proposed that these two rules be removed from the FA rules. Most of the delegates supported this suggestion but F. W. Campbell, the representative from Blackheath and the first FA treasurer, objected strongly. He said, “hacking is the true football”. The motion was carried nonetheless and — at the final meeting — Campbell withdrew his club from the FA. After the final meeting on 8 December the FA published the “Laws of Football”, the first comprehensive set of rules for the game later known as Association football (later known in some countries as soccer).
These first FA rules still contained elements that are no longer part of Association football, but which are still recognisable in other games: for instance, a player could make a fair catch and claim a mark, which entitled him to a free kick, and; if a player touched the ball behind the opponents’ goal line, his side was entitled to a free kick at goal, from 15 yards in front of the goal line.
1871 engraving of the game
In Britain, by 1870, there were about 75 clubs playing variations of the Rugby school game, including Blackheath (founded in 1858 and arguably the world’s oldest surviving, non-university rugby club). There were also “rugby” clubs in Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, there was no generally accepted set of rules for rugby until 1871, when 21 clubs from London came together to form the Rugby Football Union (RFU). (Ironically, Blackheath now lobbied to ban hacking.) The first official RFU rules were adopted in June 1871. These rules allowed passing the ball. They also included the try, where touching the ball over the line allowed an attempt at goal, though drop-goals from marks and general play, and penalty conversions were still the main form of contest.
North American football
As was the case in Britain, by the early 19th century, North American schools and universities played their own local games, between sides made up of students. By the 1820s, a game known as Ballown was being played at the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University) and Old Division Football was being played at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. In 1827, a Harvard University student composed a humorous epic poem called The Battle of the Delta, one of the first accounts of football in American universities.
The first documented football match in Canada was a game played at University College, University of Toronto on November 9, 1861. A football club was formed at the university soon afterwards, although its rules of play at this stage are unclear: it is not known whether they played a kicking or handling game, or both, and its members mostly played against each other.
The first “football club” in the USA was the short-lived Oneida Football Club in Boston, Massachusetts, founded in 1862. It has often been said that this club was the first to play soccer outside Britain. However, the rules that the Oneida club used are also unknown, and it was formed before the FA rules were formulated. The club may have invented the “Boston Game”, a running code which was being played several years later in Massachusetts.
In 1864, at Trinity College, Toronto, F. Barlow Cumberland and Frederick A. Bethune devised rules based on the Rugby school game. However, the first game of “rugby” in Canada is generally said to have taken place in Montreal, in 1865, when British Army officers played local civilians. The game gradually gained a following, and the Montreal Football Club was formed in 1868, the first recorded football club in Canada.
The first match generally said to have occurred under English FA (soccer) rules in the USA was a game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. This is also often considered to be the first US game of college football, in the sense of a game between colleges (although the eventual form of American football would come from rugby, not soccer).
Rutgers College Football Team, 1882
Modern American football grew out of a match between McGill University of Montreal, and Harvard University in 1874. At the time, Harvard students are reported to have played the “Boston Game” — a running code — rather than the FA-based kicking games favored by US universities. This made it easy for Harvard to adapt to the rugby-based game played by McGill and the two teams alternated between their respective sets of rules. Within a few years, however, Harvard had both adopted McGill’s rugby rules and had persuaded other US university teams to do the same. In 1876, at the Massasoit Convention, it was agreed by these universities to adopt most of the Rugby Football Union rules. However, a touch-down (as it was also known in rugby football at the time) only counted toward the score if neither side kicked a field goal. The convention decided that, in the US game, four touchdowns would be worth one goal; in the event of a tied score, a goal converted from a touchdown would take precedence over four touch-downs.
Princeton, Rutgers and others continued to compete using soccer-based rules for a few years before switching to the rugby-based rules of Harvard and its competitors. US colleges did not generally return to soccer until the early twentieth century.
In 1880, Yale coach Walter Camp, devised a number of major changes to the American game, beginning with the reduction of teams from 15 to 11 players, followed by reduction of the field area by almost half, and; the introduction of the scrimmage, in which a player heeled the ball backwards, to begin a game. These were complemented in 1882 by another of Camp’s innovations: a team had to surrender possession if they did not gain five yards after three downs (i.e. successful tackles).
Over the years Canadian football absorbed some developments in American football, but also retained many unique characteristics. One of these was that Canadian football, for many years, did not officially distinguish itself from rugby. For example, the Canadian Rugby Football Union, founded in 1884 was the forerunner of the Canadian Football League, rather than a rugby union body. (The Canadian Rugby Union was not formed until 1965.) American football was also frequently described as “rugby” in the 1880s.
In the mid-19th century, various traditional football games, referred to collectively as caid, remained popular in Ireland, especially in County Kerry. One observer, Father W. Ferris, described two main forms of caid during this period: the “field game” in which the object was to put the ball through arch-like goals, formed from the boughs of two trees, and; the epic “cross-country game” which took up most of the daylight hours of a Sunday on which it was played, and was won by one team taking the ball across a parish boundary. “Wrestling”, “holding” opposing players, and carrying the ball were all allowed.
By the 1870s, Rugby and Association football had started to become popular in Ireland. Trinity College, Dublin was an early stronghold of Rugby (see the Developments in the 1850s section, above). The rules of the English FA were being distributed widely. Traditional forms of caid had begun to give way to a “rough-and-tumble game” which allowed tripping.
There was no serious attempt to unify and codify Irish varieties of football, until the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884. The GAA sought to promote traditional Irish sports, such as hurling and to reject “foreign” (particularly English) imports. The first Gaelic football rules were drawn up by Maurice Davin and published in the United Ireland magazine on February 7, 1887. Davin’s rules showed the influence of games such as hurling and a desire to formalise an Irish code of football distinct from Rugby and Association football. The prime example of this differentiation was the lack of an offside rule (an attribute which, for many years, was shared only by other Irish games like hurling, and by Australian rules football).
The split in rugby football
The International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) was founded in 1886, but rifts were beginning to emerge in the code. Professionalism was beginning to creep into the various codes of football.
In Britain, by the 1890s, a long-standing Rugby Football Union ban on professional players was causing regional tensions within rugby football, as many players in northern England were working class and could not afford to take time off to train, travel, play and recover from injuries. This was not very different from what had occurred ten years earlier in soccer in Northern England but the authourities reacted very differently in the RFU, attempting to alienate the working class support in Northern England. In 1895, following a dispute about a player being paid broken time payments, which replaced wages lost as a result of playing rugby, representatives of the northern clubs met in Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU). The new body initially permitted only various types of player wage replacements. However, within two years, NRFU players could be paid, but they were required to have a job outside sport.
The demands of a professional league dictated that rugby had to become a better “spectator” sport. Within a few years the NRFU rules had started to diverge from the RFU, most notably with the abolition of the line-out. This was followed by the replacement of the ruck with the “play-the-ball ruck”, which allowed a two-player ruck contest between the tackler at marker and the player tackled. Mauls were stopped once the ball carrier was held, being replaced by a play-the ball-ruck. The separate Lancashire and Yorkshire competitions of the NRFU merged in 1901, forming the Northern Rugby League, the first time the name rugby league was used officially in England.
Over time, the RFU form of rugby, played by clubs which remained members of national federations affiliated to the IRFB, became known as rugby union.
The globalisation of association football
The need for a single body to oversee the worldwide game became apparent at the beginning of the 20th century with the increasing popularity of international fixtures. The Football Association had chaired many discussions on setting up an international body, but was perceived as making no progress. It fell to Football Associations the seven other European countries, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, to band together to form an international association. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in Paris on May 21, 1904 — the French name and acronym persist to this day, even outside French-speaking countries. Its first president was Robert Guérin.
The reform of American football
Both forms of rugby and American football were noted at the time for serious injuries, as well as the deaths of a significant number of players. By the early 20th century in the USA, this had resulted in national controversy and American football was banned by a number of colleges. Consequently, a series of meetings was held by 19 colleges in 1905–06. This occurred reputedly at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was considered a fancier of the game, but he threatened to ban it unless the rules were modified to reduce the numbers of deaths and disabilities. The meetings are now considered to be the origin of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
One proposed change was a widening of the playing field. However, Harvard University had just built a concrete stadium and therefore objected to widening, instead proposing legalisation of the forward pass. The report of the meetings introduced many restrictions on tackling and two more divergences from rugby: the banning of mass formation plays, as well as the forward pass. The changes did not immediately have the desired effect, and 33 American football players were killed during 1908 alone. However, the number of deaths and injuries did gradually decline.
The two rugby codes diverge further
Rugby league rules diverged significantly from rugby union in 1906, with the reduction of the team from 15 to 13 players. In 1907, a New Zealand professional rugby team toured Australia and Britain, and as a result the New South Wales Rugby League was formed. However the rules of professional rugby varied from one country to another, and negotiations between various national bodies were required to fix the exact rules for each international match. This situation endured until 1948, when at the instigation of the French league, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) was formed at a meeting in Bordeaux.
In the late 20th century, the rules changed further. In 1966, rugby league officials borrowed the American football concept of downs: a team could retain possession of the ball for no more than four tackles. The maximum number of tackles was later increased to six (in 1971), and in rugby league this became known as the six tackle rule.
With the advent of full-time professionals in the early 1990s, and the consequent speeding up of the game, the five metre off-side distance between the two teams became 10 metres, and the replacement rule was superseded by various interchange rules, among other changes.
The rules of rugby union also changed significantly and became very complex and technical during the 20th century. In addition, rucks and mauls became homogenised, and in line-outs players began to be lifted by their teammates to contest their opponents. The advent of professionalism has also helped to complicate rules further.
In 1995, Rugby Union became an “open” game allowing professionalism throughout the affiliate members. Although the original source of dispute between the two codes and despite the fact that ARU officials like John O’Neill have sometimes suggested the idea, the rules of both codes and their culture of football have seemingly diverged so far that such a union does not seem likely to be on the horizon within the foreseeable future.