Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The football: a 'simple' game?

Something looking like a football, in shape and size, has probably been used in forms of play almost since the beginning of human civilisation itself. But, played from the 2nd to 3rd centuries BC, and used as part of a military training exercise, the Chinese game cuju, using a feather-stuffed ball, is generally regarded by FIFA (today, football’s international governing body) as the earliest form of ‘football’ for which there is evidence. At some point during the Tang dynasty (618-907) the feather-stuffed ball was replaced with an air-filled version, and early goals with nets even began to appear.

The ancient Greeks used a soft ball for their own team handling game called episkyros, which was later transformed by the Romans into the similar game harpastum. Athenaeus, a Greek rhetorician and grammarian from the end of the 2nd century, described excitedly the way in which skilled players, ‘seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing’ in front of enthralled crowds of spectators. Younger men especially, could gain kudos and some fame from their mastery and manipulation of this lively spherical object. Little seems to have changed in the past 1800 years on this count – save, of course, for the extraordinary global and commercial interest in where it finally comes to rest today.

The Romans brought their harpastum to Britain but, ironically, none of these early uses of the ball seems to have been important in shaping modern association football. Instead, various forms of violent rural folk sport in Britain – by the 18th and 19th centuries were played, sometimes in organised teams for wagers with spheroid-shaped, leather covered air-filled balls, or cigar-shaped balls using pig’s bladders, or even with small wooden kegs, as at the Hallaton-Medbourne Easter Monday village match in South Leicestershire today – had taken hold.

In the English public schools in the mid-19th century, meanwhile, football was being adapted and rendered less violent by masters in order to try to curb the excesses of their elite male pupils, and as a form of training for the sort of bravery, management of emotions, and leadership required by gentleman for the ‘greater game’ - war. Footballs were famously sent over the top by officers to ‘kick-off’ assaults in the First World War. Competing collectively over the destination of an inflated ball was also regarded as crucial for disciplining elite young men in a specifically English version of ‘fairness.’

These dual influences – popularly from below and more formally from above – combined to popularise modern ‘football’, though early national codes for the sport initially shaped at Cambridge University and then by ex-public schoolboys at the Football Association in 1863, included some handling of the ball. Eventually, those ex-public schoolboys who mourned the passing of the violence of the mainly handling code, formed their own rugby football union in 1871, thus shaping English team sport by social class and opting for a ball shape which was much more conducive to violent ‘hacking’ and to passing via the hands.

For Victorian working-class men - encouraged by elite muscular Christians - the attractions of playing with a round ball and watching more skilled practitioners do the same, lay in the pleasures of exercise and play but also in engaging with a sport which relied on co-operation, skill and intuitive cleverness more than it did individualism and brute force. A wiry, poorly-fed and badly educated labourer could soon make a football ‘talk’ as well – if not better - than any product of the English public schools. Watching locals and non-locals alike – Scots were key figures in successful early English clubs – collectively manipulating a football could also symbolise a sense of communal belonging and a place identity, to counter the privations of geographical dislocation, work and home. Women as players were seldom taken seriously in the UK; it remains much the same today.

From the late-19th century the English spread the modern game, literally in some cases by simply taking their leather footballs abroad to start up clubs around the world: note the anglicised club names in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and all over South America today. Significantly, the older colonies initially resisted the seductions of the round ball: for them, playing with a football smacked less of new freedoms than it did of renewing old shackles.

As skill with a football began to denote national affiliation and superiority in the early part of the 20th Century – a sporting war without weapons – so nation states began to see the game as a means of doing international diplomacy, thus striking hard at the elite amateur ethos of The FA in England: the British tried desperately to keep football and politics apart, just as Germany and Italy sought to do the opposite. Since then, in locations as diverse as Iran, Chile, Honduras, Russia, Yugoslavia, Scotland, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and Northern Ireland, the futility of this proposition has become all too clear as ‘playing with a football’ has become freighted with all sorts of complex gender, religious, ethnic, geographical and political tensions. The ‘simple’ game denotes a lot more of social significance today than the proverbial 22 men chasing a bag of wind.

By John Williams

Research interests

(Including but not limited to)

  • Sociology of football and fan culture
  • Sports identities
  • Women and football
  • Issues of antiracist action around football clubs
  • Football and local identity construction through sport

Supervision interests

  • Any area connected to the sociology of sport and leisure

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