Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football

Richard Sanders enjoys the story of the world's most popular sport

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Reviewed by: Robert Attar
Author: Richard Sanders
Publisher: Bantam
Price (RRP): £8.99

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Football is perhaps the most popular sport on the planet. How did it achieve this level of global dominance and become the ‘people’s game’? Sanders’s delightful book takes us back to 19th-century Britain, where sporting history was made. Football has deeper roots than that of course; it had been a violent village sport since medieval times – “nothing but beastly fury and violence” according to one 16th-century correspondent. Yet it was not until Victorian times that the modern game was formulated.

Public schools have usually taken the credit for the development of soccer. There were, after all, 11 old Etonians and Harrovians in the first ever FA Cup final. But the public school games were extremely brutal and hampered by overly complex rules. In Eton’s wall game, for example, it was said that three goals were scored per century.  Crucial for football’s development was the fact that the wider population took on and adapted the public school game, blending it with their traditional sport. In the late 1800s it surged in popularity, coinciding with the growth of working-class leisure. The public school founders of the FA allowed the masses to become involved and grudgingly accepted professionalism, thereby preventing the damaging splits that occurred in rugby. 

By the First World War football had well and truly arrived. Over 120,000 people attended the 1913 FA Cup final. All the way through, football’s meteoric rise had been closely associated with wider changes in British society. So although this book will chiefly appeal to sport fans it is also a valuable work of social history.

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 Rob Attar is features editor of BBC History Magazine