1. A Whole New Ball Game: What is football?

Tracing the origins of anything often comes down to a chicken and the egg type conundrum that is nigh on impossible to solve. John Logie Baird is often credited as being the creator of television, but how far would he have got without the help of a wee disk invented by Paul Gottlieb Nipkow?

Soccer, rugby union, rugby league, American, Gaelic, Australian and Canadian … There are now established rules for a variety of sports played around the world that involve either using the hands, feet or both to control a round or oval ball, scoring points in a number of different ways and allowing varying degrees of physical contact. But different as they all might be, they are all collectively known as football.

But why football? It seems a strange choice of name when we consider that, apart from soccer, in all the other varieties the feet come into contact with the ball far more often than the hands…

Does this really have anything to do with the game being wrongly referred to as pila pedalis by medieval scholars that should have known better? That term actually means a ‘foot-like ball’, while pila pedarius would be the correct term for a ball propelled with the foot. Or might it have been a derogatory term for the way the game was played on foot rather than horseback, even though there is no evidence of any polo-like ball game being played in the British Isles until the idea was imported from India in the 19th century?

Or are people reading far too much into the name? After all, there are no horses in water polo, no placing of objects in cardboard containers in boxing and absolutely no demarcation of plots of lands using stakes and wire in fencing. The word ‘football’ to describe a game in which rival teams battled over a ball became increasingly common in the English language from the 16th century onwards. Originally, the name had probably only been used to describe a kicking game, while games that involved carrying answered to other names, such as ‘hurling’, ‘ballon’, ‘camp ball’ and ‘cnapan’. It only seems to have been from the early 19th century that this changed, very probably as a result of the introduction of carrying to what Rugby and other schools continued to call ‘football’.

In most people’s eyes, whether the ball was carried or kicked, it was essentially the same thing. The main point was that the ball wasn’t being hit with a stick. And before the invention of vulcanised inflatable rubber in the mid 19th century, football was by nature a rustic game due the absence of any decent balls to play it with. There was only so much you could do with a pig’s bladder.

Games that involved striking a small, hard ball with some kind of implement were refined long before football. Early varieties of cricket, golf, tennis and hockey set standards that football was only later able to follow thanks to the developments in ball-making technology. Before then, its status was not much higher than kicking a Coke can around a parking lot is today. You made do with whatever you could find to use as a ball, and adapted the rules to whatever playing area there was.

But when football finally did become an established sport, why did it go off at so many tangents? To find the reasons for that, we need only look at the way teams still pick rules to play informal games today when the conventional field, equipment or number of players are not available.

If we add to that the cultural, social, geographical and even political situations of the 19th century, then it was only logical that different and often isolated communities invented different sets of football rules.

It’s quite a story, and if you play or follow any of the football codes, then it’s one you really should take the time to learn more about. The Same Old Game will point you in the right direction…

Click here to read selected pages from this chapter

2. SETTING THE BALL ROLLING: Football in prehistory

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