The Social Institution of Football: 1 – Origins

By | January 21, 2014

Football has a long ancestry, reaching back even to Neolithic times. Its early folk forms in Europe and the Americas are reasonably well researched. In medieval England it was often associated with violence. Players not infrequently drew daggers during matches in the 13th and 14th centuries. Contests often provided opportunities for the settling of outstanding scores, culminating not only in hacking, punching and fighting, but even in deaths. By the 16th century football was most likely to be played on religious days, like Shrovetide, when the ‘carnivalesque’ predominated. Matches involving rival villages, towns or guilds were slotted in between rustic pleasures like cock-fighting and dog-tossing. For Durkheimians, football functioned to (1) preserve public order, by ‘giving youth its head’ and thereby publicly consecrating rites de passage from adolescence to adulthood, and (2) foster a strong sense of social solidarity.

Football as a folk pastime came to be regarded as incompatible with the emergence of industrialized communities in England and the new bourgeois ideology or ethos that underwrote it. In a detailed study of Derby, Delves traces football’s decline, showing how such forms of popular recreation were judged antithetical to the thrust of industrialization, corrosive of moral and social standards, and means for the reproduction of an essentially dysfunctional working-class culture. This voice of opposition was not new but it became more insistent with England’s economic flowering. Paradoxically, the 19th century also saw novel football codes promulgated within the country’s leading fee-paying or ‘public’ schools. Mason documents this process of codification between 1845 and 1862 in seven public schools. It involved setting limits on acceptable physicality, reconciling spontaneity and vigour with control and moderation. The Football Association (FA), formed in 1861, was a by-product of former public school and Oxbridge graduates playing in London. A decade later there was consensus enough to allow for a match between the London-based FA and the Sheffield Football Club, founded in 1857. In the same year, 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was created, marking the formal separation of the association and rugby codes of football. A more lasting compromise between London and Sheffield conventions was reached in 1877 when a single set of laws for association football was agreed. On the back of this agreement, the FA emerged as the game’s leading authority.

The amateur-professional dichotomy bit every bit as deeply into football as it had into cricket (and numerous other sports). Tischler puts it well:

‘The professional game reflected English society in the critical area of labour relations. Working-class fans could follow both on-the-field heroics and the player-director struggles of their favourite teams … (the introduction of) admission fees at matches revolutionized numerous aspects of football. The sport became less a gentleman’s pastime and more a commercial enterprise when played at its highest levels. Relationships among teams increasingly came to resemble the relationships among ordinary competitive business firms. Indeed, the debate over professionalism was a by-product of the commercialization of football’.

There were of course amateur traditionalists who lamented the professionalization of football. But it proved an unstoppable process and in 1885 the FA accepted its legality. A professional Football League was formed in 1888 comprising 12 clubs: Accrington, Aston Vila, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby Country, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanders. As these names testify, and at variance with the London-based FA, the roots of the professional game lay generally in the emerging industrial communities of the nineteenth century, in particularly the expanding industrial regions of the North-West and the Midlands.

Many clubs owed their origins to the local church or chapel while others evolved out of workplaces or even streets. The first dozen to comprise the Football League were commercially viable because of the rise in real wages estimated at approximately one-third between 1875 and 1900. A Second Division was added in 1892, a Third Division (South) in 1920, and a Third Division (North) in 1921. The regionalised Third Divisions gave way to national Third and Fourth Divisions in 1958, a system that remained virtually intact until the formation of the Premier Division in 1992.

The Football Association (FA) Cup was first contested in England in 1871-2, with Scotland following suit on 1874, Wales in 1877 and Ireland in 1881. It was inevitable that the Cup would head north before long. In 1882 Blackburn Rovers reached the final and in the following year their local rivals, Blackburn Olympic toppled the toffs from the south. The days of the amateur seemed numbered. The Corinthians, a representative team comprising the best, if mainly London-based, amateur players held their own for a while, defeating the FA Cup holders, Bury, 10-3 in 1904. But it was a rearguard action. When the penalty kick was introduced in 1891 the gentlemen of the Corinthians, who were of course above the committing of deliberate fouls, would, in Masons’ words, ‘neither attempt to score with a penalty nor attempt to prevent their opponents scoring should the referee decide that the Corinthians had conceded one’. How eloquently this response captures the professional-amateur divide. A knockout cup for amateur teams was established in 1894, and in 1907 a group, again mainly from the south of England, broke away to form the Amateur Football Association. Only in 1975 was the word ‘amateur’ finally deleted from the FA rules, the last FA Amateur Cup being contested in the same year.

If modern football took shape in Maguire’s second phase of sportization, that is, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, its third or ‘take-off’ phase, involving its diffusion throughout continental Europe and further afield, occurred soon after. Football’s attributes lent themselves to this galloping expansion:

‘it does not require much equipment and is comparatively cheap to play. Its rules – apart perhaps from the off-side law – are relatively easy to understand. Above all, these rules regularly make for fast, open and fluid play, and for a game which is finely balanced among a number of interdependent polarities such as force and skill, individual and team play, attack and defence’ (Dunning, 1999).

The game got underway in Germany in 1878 with the formation of a club in Hanover; in the Netherlands in 1879-80; in Italy around 1890; and in France in 1892. Further initiatives followed rapidly. The first FAs outside Britain were formed in Denmark and the Netherlands in 1889; in Belgium and Switzerland in 1895; in Germany in 1900; and in Portugal in 1906. La Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in Paris in 1904 by delegates from Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, representatives from Britain being conspicuous by their absence. Their absence has been put down to a characteristic aloofness married to a reluctance to cede control of a game it had invented. The English FA affiliated with FIFA in 1906, withdrew in 1914, re-affiliated in 1924, withdrew again in 1928, and only committed with a degree of pragmatism in 1945. So Maguire’s fourth phase points to a period of continuing Western hegemony, although one no longer dominated by Britain. In fact Britain’s influence on and within FIFA came to a final and abrupt end with Stanley Rous’ replacement by the Brazilian Joao Havelange as President in 1974.

Football, unlike cricket in that it was professional and largely working-class, travelled with trade to the furthest outposts of the British Empire and beyond, occasioning a mixed reception. Its impact on the USA was conspicuously slight, although when the Americans celebrated the centenary of their native football code in 1969, the game held to mark its beginnings, between Princeton and Rutgers on 6 November 1869, was closer to soccer than any other code (e.g. the ball was round and running with it was not permitted). After a short-lived flirtation with the round ball, however, the Americans rejected both soccer and rugby to develop their own insular ‘gridiron’ football. By the 1880s Walter Camp was setting out the rules that resulted in the uniquely American game we recognize today, which flourished in American colleges.

In South America a more orthodox form of football took root in the substantial British communities in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s. Leagues had been formed by the end of the century and in 1901 the two countries started playing each other. Argentina and Chile joined FIFA in 1912. More dramatically, Uruguay was victorious in the Olympics of 1924 and 1928 (the latter in a replayed final against Argentina).


Delves,A (1981)  Popular recreation and social conflict in Derby, 1800-1850. In Yeo,E & Yeo,S: Popular Culture and Class Conflict 1590-1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure. Brighton; Harvester.

Giulianotti,R (1999) Football; A Sociology of the Global Game. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Maguire,J (1999)  Global Sport: Identities, Societies, Civilizations. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Mason,T (1980) Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915. Brighton; Harvester.

Mason,T (1989) Football. In Ed Mason,T: Sport in Britain: A Social History. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Tischler,S (1981) Footballers and Businessmen – The Origins of Professional Soccer in England. New York; Holmes & Meier.



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