11. Eurosport: Other early forms of football in Europe

We could start in Germany, and the hunting laws of Dreieichnear Frankfurt am Main in 1338, which state that shepherds were to determine the borders of their grazing grounds by hitting a stone with their crooks. But that is agriculture, not sport.

Football was first recorded in Germany in 1874 with the foundation of Dresden FC, but like in Italy, France and Ireland, its arrival was not always well received among nationalists, who soon set about eliminating the Anglicisms and promoting the idea that football was actually descended from Germanic folk traditions. But other than scattered mentions of some kind of ceremonial game played at weddings, known as ‘brautball’ (brideball), and a few ambiguous poetic references to children playing with balls, there is very little to suggest that football was ever much of a tradition in that part of the world.

Wherever we go in Europe, we find historical references to ball games. In Poland, the likes of ‘chwytka’ and ‘ekstrameta’ sound rather like children’s playground games. A 14th century image in Ørslev, Denmark shows ‘dancing ball players’. In 1810, Sir Richard Philips wrote about a game played in Russia that was clearly similar to British folk football, and one of the strongest traditions was that of ‘lelo burti’ played cross-country between villagers in Georgia. “Any means necessary could be used to drive the ball forward – feet or hands. Sometimes they would play on horseback” writes Yuri Lukashin of a game that that would eventually be codified. It’s very similar to rugby and is cited as the reason why that sport has become so popular in Georgia, where ‘lelo’ is the local word for ‘try’ and also the nickname of the surprisingly strong national team.

Throwing rather than kicking the ball was the preferred method in most of Central and Eastern Europe, such as the ‘hazena’ played in Slovakia and Bohemia and for which the first rules were written in 1905, the ‘handbold’ codified by a Danish schoolteacher called Holger Louis Nielsen in 1898, the ‘torball’ devised by Hermann Bachmann in Germany in 1915 and other sports such as the ‘jordanka’ of Poland and the ‘gandbol’ played in the Ukraine.

Variations on ‘handball’ were so widespread that it was suggested for inclusion in the Olympic Games, but there was no international standard. To solve that, the International Amateur Handball Federation was founded in Amsterdam in 1928 and devised composite rules that were clearly based on those of soccer, and was even played 11-a-side on a soccer pitch.

Curiously, although outdoor handball never even came close to challenging soccer for popularity, it proved perfect for playing indoors. The last outdoor world championship was played in 1966, while indoor handball is still on the Olympic programme today and is a major professional sport in several European countries.

Games that involved hitting balls with sticks were just as widespread, such as Spanish ‘argolla’, Danish ‘bold i hul’ and Polish ‘czoromaj’. But two places where such games were clearly held in particularly high esteem were the Netherlands and France. Games answering to such names as ‘het kolven’ and ‘korf’ appear in several Dutch paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, often played on ice and clearly some form of golf or hockey.

In France, as early as 1426 a letter mentions the game of ‘longue boule’ in which players had to hit a ball from village to village “with the fewest strokes of the wooden ball” and in 1598 an Englishman called Robert Dallington wrote of his admiration of ‘palle-maille’ and thought it odd that “wee have not brought this sport also into England.”

The Regles Generales Du Jeu de Mail, written in 1739, describe something that was clearly like golf, in which players had to strike a ball with a mallet past all kinds of natural obstacles until reaching a designated target.

All of this evidence from France and Holland challenges the idea that golf is of purely Scottish origin. In fact, James II may have decreed as early as 1457 that “golf be utterly cryt done and not usyt” but the context suggests that this and other early references to ‘golf’ in Scotland actually meant something more like the traditional cousin of Irish hurling, shinty.

Historians try to classify medieval games as either forms of ‘hockey’ or otherwise ‘golf’ from a modern perspective, but other than ‘hockey’ players battling with each other to get to the ball and ‘golf’ players taking turns to hit it, the histories of the two games probably overlap far more than one might imagine from seeing them played today. And despite defiant claims to the contrary, modern Scottish golf was probably of French origin. In fact, the historic Thirteen Articles written by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers of 1744 were little more than an adapted translation of the French rules for ‘jeu de mail’ written five years earlier, and other than being played over 18 holes, almost all the defining characteristics of golf existed on the continent long before they were ever described in Scotland.

Golf was one of many sports that from the mid-18th century started forming national federations and standardising their rules. Others included boxing, tennis, rowing and horse racing, and in doing so these sports set standards that football would later imitate. But the one sport that influenced football above all others was cricket. It was probably because of the immense popularity of cricket that football received so little serious attention in the early 19th century, for in 1825 it was written that “most of the ancient ball games have been superseded by the noble art of cricket.” Football was often just something to keep the cricketers in shape during the winter, and as it was usually played by the same teams, it is probably correct to assume that that is why soccer adopted so many of its customs, particularly the idea of playing eleven-a-side.

Although there are somewhat ambiguous earlier references to cricket, the earliest definite proof of its existence was a coroner’s report in 1597 that mentions how in Guildford “fellows did runne and play there at creckett and other plaies.” But by the 18th century, the game was everywhere. Kent and Surrey played each other in 1709, and there has been county cricket played ever since. The Laws of Cricket were first drafted in 1744, and by this time, the papers were packed with cricket results on a daily basis, well over a century before they took the slightest interest in football. And this was not just among the wealthy, with The Field commenting in 1862 that one of the great benefits of cricket was how “it has brought out the spirit of order and discipline in the educated classes.”

Cricket also found its way to America, but in the USA it was a related sport, baseball, that became the nation’s favourite pastime. The infamous Mills Commission of 1908 discovered in 1908 that it had been the creation of one Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York in 1839, but the evidence the report presented was laughably bogus, almost nonsensical. In fact, a picture of ‘base-ball’ in a children’s book published in 1744 is one of several references to the game being played in England long before there is any evidence of the same thing in America (since The Same Old Game was published an older quote than any has been discovered dated September 1749 in the Whitehall Evening Post, whereby “his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Bass-Ball, at Walton in Surry”), while the similar English sport of ‘stoolball’ can be dated back to at least 1672.

Baseball, and what the British now call ‘rounders’, actually form part of a huge family of similar bat and ball games played all over Europe for centuries, including French ‘la balle empoisonée’, Finnish ‘poltopallo’, Polish ‘palant’, Turkish ‘chalita’ and several more. One fine example is a game described in Prague in 1610, where “the players of one team spread out over the field … prepared to catch the ball in the air. The players of the other team hit the ball in turns with a rounded stick thicker at the barrow end.” Baseball was a European game long before it was an American one.

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12. NORSE CODE: The ball games of the Vikings

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