Well-written, comprehensible, and comprehensive study of football’s early history

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Bente Ovèdie Skogvang
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences


Tony Collins
How Football Began: A Global History of How the World’s Football Codes Were Born
207 pages, paperback, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019
ISBN 978-1-138-03875-2

The aim of Tony Collins’ book is to ‘…unravel the social and economic reasons for the game’s rise throughout the world and to seek to explain why the game came to mean so much to so many people, how it could bring people together and tear them apart, make women sing for joy and make grown men weep openly on the streets’ (page 2-3). The focus is football history between 1850 and 1910. The book explores the development of the world’s football codes (soccer, rugby league, rugby union, American, Canadian and Gaelic football), and how these sports became a dominant winter entertainment for millions of people around the world, and a part of the commercialised leisure industry in the nineteenth century.

In the introduction the author raises questions about how the different football codes emerge during the nineteenth century and why association football (soccer) eclipse all of them to become the global game. The author explains why football divided into Association and rugby codes, how the rugby code itself split into Rugby league and rugby union, Australian, American, Canadian and Gaelic football. Further, the challenging start of women’s football with the obstacles women faced to play the game is addressed, and the ways in which soccer spread across Europe and Latin America before World War 1 is examined. In the book “[f]ootball is looked upon as the Victorians did: a single game that was played under different rules.” The author’s new approach is that football is a transnational phenomenon and in particular a product of the British Empire and the wider Anglophone world. Here the descriptions of the development to a global game sometimes take for granted that everybody knows the culture and development of the society in the British Islands.

After an introduction, 21 chapters follow. Chapter 1, ‘The failure of the Football Association’, shows how the English Football Association (FA) failed in creating universal rules across the codes. In chapter 2, ‘Before the beginning: folk football’, different forms of folk football such as ‘soule’ (France), ‘calcio’ (Italy), cuju/Ts’u Chi’ (China), ‘ulama’ (Mesoamerica), and games among indigenous peoples are dealt with. Collins describes how mayors, kings, businessmen, and religious evangelicals and moral reformers tried to ban and stamp out football. These games were played as entertainment on religious holidays and rural festivals, and the author states, too determinedly in my opinion, that they were not ancestors or inspiration for the modern games. In chapter 3, ‘The gentleman’s game’, we learn how football developed to be morally respectable and fashionable for men at elite private schools. Some cities are said to be crucial in the development: ‘Sheffield: football beyond the metropolis’ (chapter 4), and ‘Glasgow: football capital of the nineteenth century’ (chapter 7). Chapter 5, ‘The end of the universal game’, describes how Association and Rugby organisations were going their own separate ways without universal rules.

Chapter 6 ,‘From the classes to the masses’, discusses the influence from the societal context and the population growth on the development of football from a sport at elite schools to the creation of a mass spectator sport. Here English midlands and north cup competitions is said to ‘…have a revolutionary impact in football’ (p. 42). In chapter 8, ‘The coming of professionalism’, the autor describes how the explosion of public interest across all sections of society, especially by the industrial workers, brought significant amount of money into the sport for the first time. Professionalism was legal but stringently controlled, and this meant increased wages for the players, but also the construction of grandstands and terraces, and installing turnstiles.

With chapter 9, ‘Kicking against the pricks: women and football’, this book stands out from several other historical football texts with the inclusion of women’s football. However, it is crucial to go deeper into women’s football history to understand the development, and not always connect it to men’s football development. In the chapter, Collins presents the earliest phases of women’s football (soccer) from the British Islands and women’s rugby from Australia, including a photo of the match programme for Stoke Ladies versus Dick, Kerr Ladies from 1923 (page 72). Women were playing the game they loved in large numbers, strictly controlled, and managed by men. For instance, the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies attracted a 53,000 crowd at Everton’s Goodison Park on 26 December 1920. The club was initiated by Grace Sibbert but the team was controlled by the company manager Alfred Frankland. Female footballers were recruited from the working class, and the sport became very popular and matches attracted five-figure crowds. Collins also describes the reasons for why the FA banned women’s football 5 December 1921 and did not lift the ban until 1971.

For me as a former FIFA referee and today a FIFA referee observer, it was very interesting to read about the changes in the rules during the early phases to understand the different football codes better.

In chapter 10, ‘Rugby football: a house divided’, the debate about amateurism versus legalising of professionalism presented, which ended in the split into Rugby League and Rugby Union. The importance of Melbourne in the development of the sport and the desire for ‘a game of our own’ is discussed in chapter 11,‘Melbourne: a city and its football’; it was not a declaration of independence, but a symbol of Australia’s place in the British Empire, according to the author. Chapter 12; ‘Australian rules and the invention of football traditions’, presents five key characteristics of invented sporting traditions in Australian rules football, where the sport occupies a central position in the constant reinvention of national identity. The development of Gaelic football as well as the similarities between Australian rules and Gaelic football is shown in chapter 13, ‘Ireland: creating Gaelic football’. In chapter 14, ‘Football and nationalism in Ireland and beyond’, Collins shows that every type of football was about far more than simply what was written in the rulebooks or what took place on the pitch.

Chapter 15 ‘American football: the old game in the new world,’ discusses how football emerged in America, where, like soccer and rugby in Britain, college football’s rapid success was facilitated by the growth of the popular press and transport systems. The following chapter 16, ‘Canadian football: between scrum and snapback’, shows the transnational debate which took place across the English-speaking football world about the rules of rugby. Rugby league’s players and spectators were overwhelmingly recruited from the industrial working classes, which is discussed in chapter 17, ‘Rugby league football: from people’s game to proletarian sport’. Chapter 18 goes through ‘The 1905-07 football crisis in North America,’ and chapter 19 ‘The 1905-07 football crisis in world rugby.’ In USA, Canada and world rugby, footballers were celebrities, which spurred a discussion about commercialism and the way the game was played is in focus in these chapters. The depth of the football crisis in USA meant that many Americans looked abroad for solutions. The rugby world had split in two, and the author shows how the radical change in the rules, with removal of the deadlier aspects, as well as a tacit acceptance of commercialism, changed the sport and opened up for the game becoming more popular and ever richer.

‘Soccer: The modern game for the modern world’ is the title of chapter 20. The expansion of soccer beyond its British roots with myths and invented traditions is explored in this chapter. The author suggests that neither the beauty of the game, nor the kicking versus handling, nor that soccer was less dangerous than other football codes, can explain why soccer became more popular than the other codes. He writes: ‘The explanation for soccer’s rise to globalism is not to be found in how the game was played but in how it was administered’ p. 168). In the last chapter, 21:‘The global game,’ the author explains the social impact of World War 1, and the enthusiasm created out of a new post-war sense of national identity. In addition, FIFA, founded in 1904, promoted its game as a universal and cosmopolitan sport.

When the Collins goes through the different football codes, some of the nuances in the different sports are lost. However, one of the strengths of the book is that he manages to show both similarities and differences in the development and history by presenting all the codes by linked them to the development of the larger society. For instance, the economic basis, with a large population with significant leisure time and increasing disposable incomes, plus national transport and communication network to facilitate playing and watching games, did not emerge in Britain until the last three decades of the nineteenth century. The author shows huge insight into the history of football and especially from its starting point in the British Islands and how it spread across the globe. He also shows in his notes and references where to find further research and information about the different development stages and different topics focused in the book. For me as a former FIFA referee and today a FIFA referee observer, it was very interesting to read about the changes in the rules during the early phases to understand the different football codes better. To my mind, the book would have been even richer if women’s football had been included in a larger scale. Then again, more books with new research on that subject are being published.

The book is also well-written and comprehensible and gives new insights both for people with practical experiences from football and for researchers, students and others without own experience from the sport itself. I therefore recommend this book to scholars and students of the beautiful game in sport history, sociology of sport, sport development, sport management, as well as for practitioners involved in football in all its forms. It is especially of great interest for readers interested in the early history of football. The book is not about football only, but about the society that created it, and I especially appreciate that women’s involvement in the various football codes is included, which seldom is found in football research.

Copyright © Bente Ovèdie Skogvang 2021

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