Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Football turns 160: this is how the most popular sport in the world was born

It was a Monday, October 26, 1863. The setting, a London pub called the Freemasons’ Tavern on Great Queen Street, which still exists, although now under the name of the Freemasons Arms.

Twelve representatives of universities and pioneering football societies met there: Barnes, War Office, Crusaders, Forest, No Names, Crystal Palace – nothing to do with the current club of the same name -, Blackheath, Kensington School, Perceval House, Surbiton, Blackheath Proprietory School and Charterhouse, with a goal that would mark forever the future of the most popular sport in the world, establish a specific regulation to abide by.

Soccer was an incipient and confusing sport: it had two variants, one in which the use of the hands was allowed, as well as hitting the opponent, and another that advocated suppressing the harshness of the collisions and, above all, avoid using hands.

The first called themselves those of the ‘Rugby code’. The latter were part of the ‘Cambridge code’.

At that meeting in 1863 it would end up being imposed – not without difficulties and after many debates – the criteria of those who preferred to play soccer without their hands.

That same day the first rules were drawn up and the FA, the Football Association, the English football federation, was officially born. Its first members agreed to pay one guinea (21 shillings) as a subscription.

‘The father of football’

Among those gathered at the Freemasons’ Tavern, the presence of Ebenezer Cobb Morley. A lawyer born in Hull in 1831, he had created years earlier a sports club, the Barnes & Mortlake Regatta, focused on rowing, from which the Barnes Football Club, in which he played, would be born.

The first football regulation. FA

He was the great promoter of the meeting that was held on October 26, 1863 in London. He did it through the pages of the newspaper ‘Bell’s Life’, encouraging other clubs to get together to establish specific rules in the still incipient footballin the style of what was already happening with cricket, a sport that already had its own regulations.

The importance of the ‘Sheffield Rules’

Those gathered in London, however, did not invent or create football out of nothing: since 1858, a kind of code that already grouped together some rules existed in the north of the country, specifically in the city of Sheffield. They would go down in history as the Sheffield Rules.

They had been established in 1858: they were born specifically for a club, Sheffield FC – the oldest in the world, although it has never reached professional football -, which in turn had been born so that Sheffield cricketers could maintain their form during the winter.

Between 1863 and 1877, the rules established in London and those established years before in Sheffield coexisted. In 1877, the Sheffield clubs voted to unify under the FA code..

It was in Sheffield – it is fair to point it out – where some basic points of the regulation were established: the kick-off, corner kicks and free kicks.

In fact, the first recorded football match was played in 1794 and pitted two nearby cities, Sheffield and Norton (the clubs did not even exist as such).

The debate of the hands

Back to the pioneers of the FA, in those first meetings the great debate revolved around the use of the hands: Cobb Morley was one of the great supporters of banning the use of hands in football: His detractors would found the Rugby Union in 1871.

Ebenezer Cobb Morley, known in England as ‘the father of football’, was in charge of writing fourteen basic rules, which regulated, among other aspects, the goals, the size of the playing field and the kick-off. Then the so-called ‘Laws of the Game’ were born, an outline of the first regulation.

The meeting of October 26, 1863 in London was the first: the football pioneers held five more meetings, over the next 44 days, until on December 8 of that same year they took to the printing press of John Lillywhite, a Seymour Street printerwhich published a booklet with the first regulations in the history of football.

Actually there were two, a paperback one, priced at one shilling, and a larger hardcover one, at one shilling and sixpence.

A goalless draw to start

A few days later, on December 19, 1863, what could be considered the first football match in history under a defined regulation was played. It was played in Battersea Park (London) by Barnes (Morley’s team) and Richmond FC.

Curiously, the match ended 0-0 and with a certain feeling of disappointment. Especially among the members of Richmond, who decided to abandon the experiment and join Rugby Union, years later.

A mass phenomenon

But Cobb Morley, who was the first secretary of the FA and its second president, lived long enough to see the consolidation of football as the king of the sport. He died at the age of 93, on November 20, 1924. By then, he soccer It was already a mass phenomenon: the previous year, 1923, Wembley Stadium had been inaugurated.

And with such public success (More than the 126,000 spectators indicated by the official capacity attended) that a policeman on horseback had to clear people from the grass so that the FA Cup final, known since then as ‘the white horse final’, could be played.


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