The birth of football: your 60-second guide

Julian Humphrys looks at the events that made the game what it is today.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

The Harrow football team in the 1860s – Getty Images

When did football as we know it take shape?

A key moment in the development of the game as we know it came in October 1863, when representatives from a dozen schools and clubs met at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London to form the Football Association and agree a set of
official rules under which they could all play.

What had happened before that?

The game had come a long way from the ‘mob football’ of the Middle Ages when, typically, large groups of men would battle to move a ball from one end of a village to the other.

By the early 19th century, organised matches with clearly defined rules were being played at public schools. However each school had its own particular code, which made the organisation of competitive matches problematical.

Differences included the amount of handling that was permitted and the question of ‘hacking’ – a medieval survival permitting the kicking of an opponent’s shins.

What was agreed in 1863?

Fourteen laws were agreed including pitch length, goal size and an early form of the offside rule. The number of players in a team was not stipulated and it was still possible to claim a ‘fair catch’ (as in modern Australian Rules Football). Hacking was banned – a decision that led the Blackheath Club to walk out in protest.

How did the game develop?

The 1863 laws were not the only ones in force. Attempts had been made at Cambridge to codify the laws and some clubs still played under rules formulated in Sheffield six years earlier, in 1857. In 1877 the two sets of rules were combined.

The first FA Challenge Cup was staged in 1871/72, and the growing popularity of the sport in the north and Midlands was reflected in the formation of the Football League in 1888.

When was the first international match staged?

Matches between English and London-based Scottish players had been played in London between 1870 and 1872.

But the first official international match between the countries was staged at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground on St Andrew’s Day, 1872. Watched by 4,000 spectators, the match ended in a 0-0 draw although Scotland came nearest to scoring when the ball landed on the tape that then served as a crossbar. 

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