Chapel at Eton College
Football in many ways has seemed to prove George Orwell's opinion that sport is war minus the shooting (The Sporting Spirit by George Orwell). Totalitarian governments have tried to manipulate the game for their own ends, and supporters have used football as a focus for fighting their own wars between clubs, or even between nations. But inspite of all this, the big difference between football and totalitarian governments, or the waging of war, is that football is not all about winning. And this has nothing to do with any delusions of fair play supposedly dating back to British public school ball games from which modern football evolved. Winning is not everything in football, simply because it is bad for business. As Wray Vamplew has written: "The ideal market position of a conventional business would be a monopoly, but it is less desirable in sport, for what use is it to be heavy weight champion of the world but to have no challengers? In almost every sport competitors combine to produce a saleable commodity" (Professional Sport in Britain 1875 - 1914 P13). Wars are fought to destroy the enemy, totalitarian regimes ruthlessly suppress their opposition. Superficial appearances aside this is not true of football, or of any sport. Perhaps in this sense sport represents the most sensible way to organise life. As Charles Darwin made clear in his Origin of Species the world is not designed to let one organism win all the time. From the beginning of his book he makes it clear that if a plant or animal triumphed unceasingly then the world would soon be swamped by that one organism. This isn't any good for any form of life, including the successful one, which after a certain level of triumph simply outstrips its food supply. Life is about both winning and losing. Both have to be accepted. Many people misunderstand Darwin, and see his work only in terms of winners. Many people have the same misconception about sport.
Football in one form or another has a very long history, dating back to the earliest civilisations. Early kicking games developed in China and among Australian aborigines. The Chinese game began with play towards some kind of single goal, but developed into a game that involved keeping a primitive ball off the ground. But according to football historian David Goldblatt there is no evidence that these ancient games were central to the societies they were played in. For a society that placed football in an important social role we have to go to the ancient civilisations of South and Central America. It seems that for over 3000 years football games were important to Aztec society. This continued up until the sixteenth century when Spanish invaders destroyed these societies. A major factor in the ancient South American game was the development of a hollow bouncing ball, made with rubber derived from trees in South America's forests. In most circumstances objects are inert: when a stone is thrown on the floor it stays there. A rubber ball, by contrast seems to have a life of its own in the energetic way it bounces back. Archeological fragments suggest that rubber ball manufacture began as early as 1500BC, and team games using it seem to date from 1200BC. Most of these involved keeping a ball off the ground, or only allowing a set number of bounces, a kind of volley ball. Other variants had targets through which a ball had to pass. Whatever form these games took, the ball had a central place in South American life and culture. The Popul Vuh, was the central written text of Mayan cultures in southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A major portion of this myth, describing the creation of the sun and moon, involves ball games. The sun and moon are portrayed as divine ball players, the children of goddess Zquic. Moving balls glowing in the night sky are interpreted in terms of earth bound ball games. Fittingly the ball had a power to make its own way towards the heavens. As the Spanish royal chronicler Pedro Martin de Angleria wrote on encountering South American civilisations: "I don't understand how when the balls hit the ground they are sent into the air with such incredible bounce" (The Ball Is Round P6).
Freemasons Arms, London where the FA was formed in 1863
Meanwhile football made little headway in Europe. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans had strong traditions in ball games. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Christian dominated medieval Europe was actively hostile to football, which in some shape or form survived in the Celtic fringe areas, Wales or Ireland for example. But even here football was being stamped out. Medieval kings banned the playing of huge chaotic football matches, often played over fields between villages. Edicts were issued by Edward II, Henry V, Edward IV, Henry VII, Henry VIII banning football. Today we only have an event like the eccentric annual football match in the shallow river at Bourton-on-the-Water to remind us of football played across fields and ditches. Edicts were also passed against other sports. People did not have much free time, and what little they had was required to be devoted to archery practice. Archery was thus the only "sport" available, though archery is not a sport in the real sense of the word. In archery there was no sense of competing with an opponent to produce a spectacle: the overriding aim of archery was to kill your opponent.
By the 1800s, following centuries of suppression, football barely existed in Britain. The main sports were boxing, horse racing, rowing and cricket. Football was seen as a barbarous sport, hated by business men, shop keepers and the Church. Ironically the one place where football survived was in the closed, and often violent world of England's most prestigious public schools. These schools may have taught Greek and Latin and dressed boys up in fancy clothes, but outside the classroom behaviour could be vicious. A pupil revolt at Rugby in 1797 required intervention by the army. The army was also called to Winchester in 1818, the army's sixth visit in fifty years. In an attempt to channel this aggression each public school had its own particular version of a violent ball game. This tradition was built upon by Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby school 1828 - 48, who developed a philosophy of "muscular Christianity". Team games evolved as tools to encourage muscular Christian virtues of toughness and fellow feeling. And when boys moved on to Oxford or Cambridge they took their games with them, but ran into problems playing with other students from other schools who followed different rules. Cambridge in the 1840s saw attempts to devise compromise rules. There were, however, major disputes between old boys from schools that played kicking games - Harrow, Eton, Charterhouse and Winchester - and those who played a game where the ball is carried - Rugby and Marlborough. Agreement was not reached until November 1863 at a meeting held at the Freemasons Arms in Longacre, London. Eleven old boys clubs sent representatives to the meeting. In a series of meetings over the next two months, the kicking fraternity devised a set of compromise rules, and started calling themselves the Football Association. The ball carriers decided to form their own game, which was to become rugby. Initially the Football Association had to compete with a group of teams in the Sheffield area who had published their own rules back in 1858. It wasn't until 1871 that the London and Sheffield groups decided to play by a shared set of rules. Association football had come into being.
Match day crowd at Arsenal's old Highbury stadium (photo by Kevin Edwards)
Football was now rapidly to turn into a sport of industrial proportions. The nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, often portrayed as all dark satanic mills and misery, was also a time of rising incomes and increased leisure. Leisure, higher incomes and opportunities to travel on the new rail network fed into football. Tottenham Hotspur built a stadium at White Hart Lane, right next to a station. Chelsea's ground Stamford Bridge was built next to an Underground station at Fulham Broadway. Arsenal moved from Woolwich in 1913 to be near a Piccadilly Line Underground station. Large crowds for sporting events weren't entirely new: there had been significant gatherings for rowing races on the Thames and for horse races, but there had been nothing like the numbers who attended football matches. The crowd at the 1888 FA Cup final at the Oval was 17,000. By 1913, the crowd watching the FA Cup final between Aston Villa and Sunderland at Crystal Palace numbered 120,081. During 1914 attendance at Division One matches was almost nine million. The First World War was the final step in transforming football from an elitist pursuit to a mass game. By this point football was being spread world wide through Britain's trading and imperial connections.
Football in the 1920s was hugely popular in Britain, with the Empire Stadium at Wembley opening in 1923. The game also continued to expand world wide, with the first World Cup competition taking place in Uruguay in 1930. And of course to keep the millions of spectators happy there had to be a constant supply of interesting games between competitive clubs. While clubs did their best to win, the existence of a robust opposition was good for everybody. Some people in politics, naturally, had different priorities. In March 1938 the German army marched into Austria. "Elections" were then held in which 99.73% of the Austrian electorate apparently voted for the Nazi party. There was no tolerance of opposition. Following Germany's occupation, Austrian Jewish clubs were shut down. All teams who had played the Jewish team Hakoah that season were awarded a retrospective 3-0 victory. But while Hitler's government could control the results of Austrian football matches, the game itself continued to be unpredictable. A symbolic combined team of German and Austrian players, disrupted by internal tensions, performed poorly at the 1938 World Cup. Football valued the unpredictable, that quality of a rubber ball which had so fascinated early South Americans. This continued to upset politicians who only saw the world in their own terms. Goldblatt quotes a finding from a 1940s Mass Observation study, an early public opinion survey, which said: "People find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport " (quoted in The Ball Is Round P297). This is not surprising because sport and war have different aims, inspite of their superficial similarities. As Danny Blanchflower - Tottenham captain, football manager and journalist - once said: "The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out to beat the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom " (quoted in The Ball Is Round P397). Naturally in the late twentieth century there were many who were not as wise as Blanchflower. After the 1970 World Cup the military regime of Brazil tried to manipulate football for its own ends. Brazil's star player Pele responded by refusing to play for his country in the 1974 World Cup. The previous year, during the period of qualification matches for 1974's World Cup, General Pinochet had staged a military coup to take control in Chile. In response the Soviet Union refused to play the Chilean team in their World Cup qualifier. On 21st November 1973 the Chilean national team took to the pitch at the virtually deserted Estadio Nacional, Santiago. They had a kick about amongst themselves, before tapping the ball into an undefended goal. If ever a match confirmed the requirement of valuing your opposition it was this one.
Once again it is necessary to reiterate that valuing your opponent had nothing to do with a British sense of fair play. Football from the late 1950s onwards certainly was no gentlemanly pastime. In fact it was becoming increasingly warlike, with violence becoming endemic between groups of football fans. In 1963 Everton installed fences at Goodison Park to segregate fans. In the season following England's World Cup win, organised gangs established "ends" in their own grounds, and tried to storm the ends of other grounds. Nationalist politics became associated with football violence. Crowd disorder, and attempts to control it with the use of caged areas in stadiums led to terrible disasters when surging crowds had nowhere to go. Hundreds of people were crushed to death at Heysel in May 1985, and at Hillsborough in April 1989. In the mid to late 1980s football was in crisis, in a downward spiral of violence and falling attendances. It was rescued from this mess not by any polite sense of fair play and respect for opponents, and not by the often disastrous security measures that had been put in place. Football was rescued simply by market forces. Money started to come in from sponsorship deals - Arsenal's 1981 deal with JVC was the first major commercial sponsorship deal, setting the pattern of many that followed. In the 1990s television deregulation pushed revenue up as channels competed for the rights to show football matches. With increased investment ticket prices went up. In 1992 the average cost of a Premiership ticket was £8: by 2005 this had increased to around £40. As ticket prices increased the nature of football crowds changed. There was a shift away from unskilled and manual workers to skilled and professional workers. By 2002 over one third of Chelsea season ticket holders were earning over £50,000 a year, twice the national average. Nick Hornby's 1992 novel Fever Pitch caught this moment as football made its transition from violence and racism towards a new more orderly commercialism.
Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea. This image is copyright free
And naturally today's commercial football continues to need interesting matches between competitive teams. Different approaches have been taken to provide this. In the 1990s, for example, the French Football Federation organised a system of solidarity payments and subsidies. This system transferred money from the elite teams to teams lower down the order. This did not lead to a massively successful club record abroad, but it did lead to a league which in Goldblatt's words was "the most open and competitive in Europe". And of course in 1998 France hosted and won the World Cup. Meanwhile the British Premiership took a more "free market" approach. Television revenues tended to widen gaps between clubs at the top and bottom of leagues, and little was done to even out inequalities. The league also became the playground for the super rich who poured uneconomic amounts of money into football clubs. Abramovich at Chelsea is the best example. Chelsea posted the biggest annual loss for a club in English football history in 2005, at £140 million. In such circumstances you might wonder how top British football can remain competitive and entertaining. Such is the level of financial support given to Chelsea that no club wishing to remain solvent could compete. But what the ancient South Americans saw as the divine unpredictability of football continues. Not even Chelsea could win everything. In the long term no one person or team can own football. There is always unpredictability and doubt, which gives ironic reassurance that the game will go on. In Fever Pitch Nick Hornby writes about the Arsenal defender Augustus Caesar, who as a promising youth player must have foreseen a great career. He had been a member of the England Under 21 squad and had been picked by a top team. There was plenty of evidence that he was an extremely talented young player. Then in January 1987 the truth dawned when Caesar, with what seemed like a glittering career ahead of him, played like a "rabbit caught in headlights" against Tottenham. In football, as in life, you never know. John Williams and Richard Guilianotti have written that football is hard to measure in the sense that American football can be measured in yards gained, or that baseball can be measured in the various statistics applying to pitchers and batters. Football is more difficult to gauge in these terms.
"Just how is it possible to 'measure' the skills involved in setting an offside trap, or those required in 'reading' midfield passing options, or in losing a tight marker near a goal" (Game Without Frontiers P6). This unpredictability is as unnerving as it is reassuring. Totalitarian leaders might hate it, but such doubt ensures that the game will go on, a game that values allies and opponents acting together to produce a spectacle. The open muddy fields of medieval football, the chaotic scrums of eighteenth century public school field games, may have been replaced by neatly marked out pitches, but on those pitches the movement of the ball still has a life of its own. Football often seems to be the survival of the fittest, but as Charles Darwin knew, life is not about the survival of the fittest: it is as much about controlling winners, as finding them. The sport cannot finish in any kind of monopoly or victory for any individual. In an unpredictable situation, there is always a new season to look forward to.