The English Game

This is a little different from my usual topics, but it still involves history. I confess I am a football fan or soccer, as it is called in the U.S. The sport is not one I was familiar with growing up, as I lived in the Midwest, and it was not something anyone played back then. American football was king, and my parents had season tickets to the Kansas City Chiefs games. Graduating from KU, they are die-hard Jayhawk basketball fans. Me? I was a competitive swimmer. These were the sports I knew until I met my husband, who played soccer in college and taught me the game.

These days, I am a true blue Chelsea fan, which I don’t think he expected when he introduced me to the sport. The season is winding down now, and while I’m not as bad as Colin Firth in Fever Pitch, I look forward to next year’s fixture list. Before I get into the sport’s history, let me congratulate the Chelsea Women’s team on their league championship win.

Many consider the English to have invented modern football. I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix series The English Game, written and produced by Julian Fellowes. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. It explores the class distinctions involved in the sport’s early history and follows the mostly true career of Fergus Suter, a Scottish footballer. I have Suters in my heritage, hmm?

However, a similar game can be traced back to the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, around 200 BC. Known as Cuju, this was a military exercise where they kicked a leather ball stuffed with feathers into a net. It became popular among the nobility and eventually was played by the common folk. There is evidence the shoes they wore had protrusions on the bottom that may be the forerunner of modern cleats.

Alliance Stadium, Munich

Modern-day football traces its roots to 19th-century English private schools. Some claim there was a game called folk football during the medieval period that was the forerunner. This game consisted of two teams trying to move a pig’s bladder from one end of town to another. To me, this sounds more like the forerunner of rugby. The game often turned violent and was banned off and on throughout time.

Early football differed from what we know today. Initially, hands were allowed, and players could tackle each other to the ground. Passing was unknown as team members ran beside or followed the man with the ball, hoping to collect it should he lose control. It wasn’t until the concept of passing became more prevalent that it grew into the team sport we know today.

As I am looking at the sport’s history, I won’t bore you with the rules or strategies. Suffice it to say some of the above has changed. For example, you cannot use your hands or handle the ball. And tackling another player and pulling him to the ground is no longer allowed. Well, maybe not. The offsides rule began in 1863 when it required three players (which included the goalkeeper) to be ahead of the forward receiving the ball. In 1925, this was reduced to two players. In 1990, this was updated, allowing the forward to be level with the second to the last defender. Sometimes, that makes for a tough call and there are those who would like to see this return to the earlier rule.

Today, football is played worldwide. It is just as popular here in Germany, and everyone has their favorite team. My husband and I were fortunate to see Bayern Munich play this year in the huge Allianz Stadium. So much fun!

Please kick my ball!

Even our Border Collie, Kelso, loved the game. When our daughter, Megan, played, Kelso would sit on the sidelines watching. His eye never left the ball. When she later played for Appalachian State, he would sit in the stands. If anyone stood in front of him, he would sigh and get up and move. Other fans were constantly surprised by the dog who watched the game.

Are you a football fan? Who is your team?