A book that changed the world

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, 8th December 1863, a meeting of ex public schoolboys, representing a dozen London and suburban football clubs, took place in a pub, the Freemasons Arms in Great-queen Street, London. They met to finalise the contents of a book, a book which has since been called, ‘one of the twelve books that has changed the world’. That book was of course the Rules of Association Football.  And along with the book, the Football Association was founded. Not the London Football Association or even the English Football Association, just the Football Association. All clubs who affiliated to this association were then bound to play according to this new set of rules.

Why, it may be asked was all this necessary? Football had been played for centuries in many parts of the world, there seems to be a universal desire to kick a ball about. Written records in the middle ages describing football in Britain say ‘the game was an ill-defined contest between indeterminate crowds of youths, attracting to the fray anyone with an inclination to violence’. It was the Public Schools who came to the rescue. They all played football but the problem was that each school had its own rules and the difficulties came when they played each other, They sometimes overcame this by playing one school’s rules the first half and the other school’s the second. This is how half time became established. However, when the boys went to university and wanted to play together it was difficult and problems arose again when they wanted to play after leaving university. This is what led the representatives of those clubs to meet in a pub that day.

I have a copy of the handwritten rules agreed that day. There were only thirteen, as opposed to seventeen today, plus definitions of the terms used. Some bear no relationship to the game as we know it today although how to start the game is identical. The rules state how to restart after a goal and how a goal is scored. They also give the procedure if the ball goes out of play over the goal line and the touchline. There was an offside rule but as it was known then as ‘out of play’. There was a rule forbidding hacking, tripping, holding and pushing and the final one was about safety of footwear. Nothing earth shattering it might be thought but it was important to differentiate between the two types of football being played, one where you could carry the ball and one where you couldn’t.

But did it change the world? When England played against teams from Scotland, Wales and Ireland a few years later the same problem of different rules arose, so the International FA Board was formed in 1882.  This had representatives from the four home countries who agreed rules that had to be adhered to by all their clubs. In 1913 FIFA joined the Board which in effect meant that wherever football was played competitively anywhere in the world, it is played to the same rules or laws as they are now called. We all know there are things wrong in football but there is much that is good and to be praised. Football is now without doubt the most popular sport in the world. It is a simple game and yet one that can be played with great skill and your nationality or colour or affiliations doesn’t matter.

We have to wonder if it would ever have got to where it is today, if it hadn’t been for that group of English footballers who agreed to one set of rules in that London pub, one hundred and fifty years ago this week.


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