Football: The Association of England

Team-based sports have been considered entertaining educational tools ever since human alienated from nature by building civilization (Ortega y Gasset)[1]. Because of this, organized team-sports are a regular part of the collective life of any community (Holt)[2].  Together, these mean sports are a good diversion — at least to distract the masses from the real problems (Machiavelli)[3]. Like the Roman proverb says: “to the people, bread and circus”; sports being that bread and circus that is known defined as social relievers. Games and sports have had throughout history not only this role, but that of “agents of cultural cohesion” (Holt), bringing people together under most circumstances. The Olympics are the epitome — a sports event capable of stopping wars since the times of the ancient Greeks.

Football had these same social functions for the British of the 1800s, but scholars usually invest it with these important roles until the 1850s and afterward. The main milestone that prompts scholars towards this conclusion is the formalization of the football “industry”, when amateur clubs shaped up a system that would become a multimillion-dollar entertainment business appealing and involving English, Scottish, and Irish alike. Another scholarly view is to brand football as one more factor in the clash among the different social ranks of Britain that were struggling and competing against each other. But both of these scholarly positions build up mainly starting from the 1850s study, leaving a huge continuity gap (Holt) that maims the analyses. The biggest flaws of these theories rely on two facts: football existed and was important before this marked decade, and it helped during a transitional state of society (Mill)[4] — the Industrial Revolution — to keep Britain together as a nation.

Despite rank or religious differences, since the early 1800’s football was a strong and popular among the British people, precisely at the time when the Industrial Revolution was stratifying society further and further apart. The different classes developed identity issues because of the urbanization accompanying industrialization. People started to be confused about their class and communal selves. There was no clear trend if whether communities would build up according to jobs, workplaces, or living locations; contrary to the recent past, when community mostly meant the people that lived together somewhere. Football aided in solving this dilemma, for it strengthened civic pride by exploiting sport competition (Holt) and forged positive type of class consciousness (Cunningham)[5]. Football was the sport in which anyone could partake and enjoy, by either playing or by watching the matches. A community would form around a football match, which could take place in the neighborhood street, the nearby park, or the outside the after-work pub. People then shared an identity based upon work and leisure.

But to fully understand the significance of football for the steady development of industrial Britain, it’s mandatory to clarify what football meant back then — especially when the concept itself morphs definition from era to era and from nation to nation. British football was any sport-like activity involving two opposing teams playing with a ball in a somewhat large open field; any further details regarding rules and gaming styles did not matter in the beginning of its general popularization. Actually, football’s diversity or lack of standards certainly had something to do with its spreading. The sport would eventually split between its Rugby style and its Association style — known ever since as “rugger” and “soccer” (Dunning)[6]. These had clear differences from each other. To exemplify, Rugby was more violent and required more use of hands, while soccer was the opposite. But not until around the 1850s do the differences of footballs meant anything important or were they fixed to go along with the formalization of the sport-business.

Basically, the type of football was entirely dependant on the resources available to the players, like reflected by the location and ball used to play an specific match. Rich people would play with fancy leather footballs in proper sports-planned fields. The humbler players would resort to lesser balls, which were barely useful for parks or the streets. Having virtually no troublesome requisites made football a very attractive, playable activity suited for almost anyone and anywhere — as opposed to polo or cricket, in which the required equipment made them prohibiting sports for the lesser strata of society.

Football was not a new invention in Britain the way it was played, though. There’s the debatable urban legend about football’s origin — that in the beginning it was about people kicking around severed heads during the English Civil War. Regardless of the true origin, football was officially first mentioned way back in the 12th century in the writings of Fitzstephen, as a barbarous activity of the mobs at the time. Then it was mentioned again in laws that banned football from the 1300s to the 1600s because matches usually degraded into mob fights — situation feared by the government and shunned by the Puritans. Still, football remained “active” among people, especially in rural areas, thus steering away from the limelight.

Football, as previously stated, came back to openly-public acceptance towards the beginning of the 19th century — most significantly, when it was adopted by “public schools” between 1780s as 1830s as favorite sport. The “public school” status was phony for that matter, though. These schools deviated from their original purpose of providing public education and became institutions attended by the young of the higher and middle ranks of British society (Dunning)[7].

This is the point where the effects football had upon and from the working class and the higher ranks can be discerned distinctively (Mason). For the workers’ case, football moved from the country fields to the city streets; whereas for the higher ranks, those that emigrated from the cities came to find football out in the country[8]. In spite of the cases interconnecting and centering on football, they ought to be analyzed separately before tying up such nexus between them.

Behind working-class football was the urbanization prompted by the Industrial Revolution, which happened to be the key motor for the changes and adaptations of society. Countrymen were attracted to the cities because of the rising industrialism — more industry meant jobs and supposedly a better living quality. These men brought with them the ball-related folk games called football, the essentially brutal and violent mob games (Goulstone)[9]. Thanks to its simple requirements and entertaining playability, football had no problems making the transition from the green fields to the gray streets.

Yet, the change of settings demanded adaptation and tweaking. Otherwise, it would not have been as attractive and playable, nor as effective as agent of social cohesion.

One of the main reasons for any modifications was the new clock-based schedule on which work was now oriented (Mason), which affected most aspects of regular urban life. Leisure time gained then the position of a concern for working men, since it became an allotted fraction of their day — one to be seized. Their labor was no longer ruled by dawn, dusk, and the duration of their rural chores. So they had to figure out how to spend their leisure wisely. Football fitted just right as the option to take in this regard.

Another modification was related to the playground. Streets, as mentioned previously, for both boys and men, commonly replaced fields as preferred location. After all, the only things needed were a usable ball, a bunch of willing players, and enough open space. But history repeated itself: the matches were too violent, or at least violent enough for Evangelists to push for football’s proscription from the streets. It was not only an Evangelist claim, but a reality, since often there were severely injured people or even deaths among the players of the street matches. This motivated, again, a ban of football; this time from the streets in the Highways Act of 1835. The solution was to relocate football to parks and to pubs — places that would become headquarters for game organization and social centers for players and spectators (Mason); setting at the same time grounds for the sports culture that exists today.

Workers would gather after labor hours in the nearby pub for two purposes: to drink and to mingle, both which combined, translated into football matches. The people who gathered then took football out to the street. Or the match would happen in a close park — if the new urban planning had functioned well (Salisbury)[10], for parks started to be taken into consideration so that these could serve properly as places of leisure sports and socialization. Regardless of playing location, some people would play, others would be the audience. Teams could be made up by workers according to factory, job, or neighborhood — resembling the old-school, rural approach of “teams-by-village”. Football teams hence built communal identities for the newly-arrive workers in the cities just as for inhabitants of rural Britain, despite governmental regulations.

The football movement refused to vanish in spite of the best efforts by the government to apply social control measures. People liked to play football, or they liked watching the matches and discuss them. It was an all-inclusive entertainment, which also happened to be athletic. However, football was viewed by the government and some other fundamentalists still as a nuisance rather than something profitable and positive for society. In the end, the repeated failed attempts to erase it from the British reality were just compelling enough to make football evolve and adapt into a more formal, less brutal, and therefore more playable sport (Dunning).

While the masses of workers took over the streets of all the cities across Britain to work and to play in them alike, the middles classes detached themselves from the urban centers. These last got away from the urban monstrosities that they had helped create and, emulating the established aristocracy of landowners, went to live in the countryside (Holt). Moreover, a part of this dissemination was that the sons of both the high ranks and the rising middle class attended the public schools, literally taking them over. This fact, plus its multiple, subsequent implications, were highly important reasons for the adoption and adaptation of football by these elites (Goulstone), since it represented an educational tool suited to resolve certain issues of the school system during the take-over.

At first, football was introduced to the schools as a means to reassert faculty authority and suppress the pride of the higher-class kids. Such issue of defiance derived from the take-over that the public schools suffered. These boys had the notion that they were being taught and controlled by lesser people — their teachers — and they resisted the idea to the point of revolting (Holt). The situation spread among all public schools. Football, with its rudeness and violence, then provided an opportunity for teachers to discipline or to punish the rebellious students. Notwithstanding, within a few years, the power of torture that came with football transferred from the schools’ authorities to the older boys. It all turned into a system used by “more important” boys to haze the younger “fags”, in practices of humiliation, subordination, and physical pain whenever possible.

The main forms of this abuse divided between in-game and out-of-game categories. In-game hazing, for instance, included the older boys’ prerogative of forcing the younger ones to play exclusively defense, and their proneness to a more violent game with the fags present.

In a sense, the fag system was at the same time cohesive and differentiating. It forced interaction between the higher and middle class boys — either positive or negative. Eventually, this helped forge identities of the different groups at the schools, while having them in a regulated competition that unified them.

Because the hazed fags were mostly middle-class boys, and going in accordance with the spirit and forces behind Industrialism, it was the middle class that pushed for a change in the public schools’ football (Mason).  The petition was not as radical as to request a prohibition, since football was seen as a good way to inculcate leadership ambition — very important for higher-class heirs — and to build up character — in a very Nietzschean “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. Also, it enhanced school spirit when playing other teams. All that the system needed was some reformation, some guidance. What proceeded was an “embourgeoisement” of what had been mostly a brutal folk game. By setting rules and regulations, football was asserted as an effective educational tool for these aforementioned purposes (Dunning) and as a safe leisure option.

This first happened at Rugby, in a reformation experiment that lasted from 1828 to 1842. It would turn out to be the example for all other schools to follow (Mason). The school at Rugby, under the director’s lead, standardized football by defining rules, like making teams even, among other reformations. Also, the sport began to be treated partly as discipline and partly as means to keep the boys away from trouble and pranks. If there was any type of rivalry between higher class and middle class boys, it had to be sorted out in the field under the new rules.

This is the time and the manner in which football got defined closer to what it is nowadays, switching from a folk game to a modern sport. The roles of players and spectator started to be better determined. Rules about how to play and where to play were set, while still keeping a level of informality unlike cricket and polo. Most importantly, it was decided when to kick the ball and when to carry it.

There was in this reformation, some focus on balancing — if not preferring — skill and brute force. And, there was focus on achieving the best out of communal/team pressure and individual ambition (Dunning) — last point being that players would strive to do their best whether for the sake of the team, their own, or both, if they were being correctly influenced by the practice of football.

These last traits were precisely what made football a factor for communal identity regardless of — or more accurately, according to — social position. Each stratus of society gained from the influence of football even before the times of professional teams, tournaments, and hooligans. The workers in the cities, most of them out-of-towners, got to identify themselves with their pub team, just like they previously related to the village team in their pre-industrial lifestyles. On a similar basis, the higher classes gained pride on their school teams. Rivalries were kept as long and as often as possible under sane terms, otherwise, everything could have exploded into worse types of social turmoil. The great irony of the whole football phenomenon is that the clash of working-class antics and high-class mentality improved the sport. The lower-class gave the game, while the higher class set the rules. It was a great example of elites fulfilling their historical, vital role of guiding the masses (Ortega y Gasset)[11]. The improvement was in ways that benefited all levels of society, redeeming aspects and factors of 19th century Britain that had immense possibilities and probabilities of becoming harmful to the nation — namely, the class disparities and the new types of exploitation suffered by the lower class.

Ultimately, football has demonstrated all around the world up to nowadays that it has the power to ameliorate people’s reality, and to bring together not only nations like Britain, but rally the whole world to play. Maybe, the world goes round and round not because of gravity, but because it’s a football…



[1] Ortega y Gasset, José. Meditations about Technology.



[2] Holt, Richard. “Working Class Football and the City: The problem of continuity”. The British Journal of Sports History. 3.1 (1986): 5-28.



[3] Machiavelli, Nicollo. “The Prince”. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wootton. Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis, IN. (1994): 5-77,



[4] Mill, John Stuart “The Spirit of the Age”. Mill: Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Ryan, Alan. Norton & Company. New York, NY. (1996): 3-40



[5] Cunningham, Hugo. “Football”. Bulletin – Society for the Study of Labour History: 57-59



[6] Dunning, Eric. “Industrialization and the Incipient Modernization of Football”. Arena 1 (1976): 103-139 (Based upon a prospective book by the author).



[7] Dunning, Eric. “Football in its Early Stages”. History Today 13.12 (1963:Dec.): 838-847



[8] Mason, Tony. Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915. Havervester/Sussex Humanities Press. Atlantic Highlands, NJ. (1980): 1-21



[9] Goulstone, John. “The Working Class Origins of Modern Football”. International Journal of the History of Sport. 17.1 (2000): 135-143.



[10] Salisbury, Robert. “Organized Sports and Urban Life”. Urban Affairs Quarterly. 24.2 (1988:Dec.): 327-332



[11] Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses.



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