Soccer (or Football as everyone else calls it) is the most beloved game in the world. Turn on the television any weekend and you’ll see games being telecast from all over the world. Do I play soccer? No. Have I ever played soccer? No. But , I’ve watched kids play soccer in empty lots, street corners and school yards in every country I’ve ever visited. All it takes is a ball (or something resembling a ball) and you’ve got a game. According to the Bleacher Report, soccer is played in 208 countries around the world, with a fan base of over 2 billion.
Why am I writing about soccer? Well, I’ve just finished watching the Netflix mini-series, THE ENGLISH GAME, created by Julian Fellowes (you’ll remember him as the creator of the incredibly successful Downton Abbey series). It’s a very interesting and historically accurate series, based on people and events which actually occurred. Of course, it does have its underlying, less interesting, heart-tugging, soap opera-ish subplots … which was expected. The series is a six-part drama which I don’t think can go any further than examining how soccer became Great Britain’s most popular sport.
The question I needed answering was “did Great Britain invent the sport?” The simple answer is ‘no’. Although Egypt, Japan, and Greece also had some form of ‘ball’ game, historians suggest that the game which comes closest to what we now call ‘soccer’ was first played by the Chinese. It seems that “TEA” wasn’t the only thing invented in China 5000 years ago. It appears that ‘soccer’ was too. The Chinese game of Cuju, pronounced “chuk-ko” which means “kick the ball”, dates as far back as 2500 B.C. So, as the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting under the wild tea tree in his garden boiling water, soccer was being played in the courtyard.
The game, which appears to have begun as a training exercise for soldiers, involved the soldiers kicking a small leather ball with their feet through an opening into a net. At the request of the emperor, the soldiers began to form teams and compete against each other. This game of Cuju became so popular that it spread from the army to the royal courts and then down to the people. Because of its fast-growing popularity with people in every class, standardized rules of play had to be established. The sport thrived for over 2,000 years, but, for some reason, began to fade away during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
How, then, did this ‘football’ game make its way to Great Britain? We’ll never know exactly, but we do know the game spread from China to Japan. In fact, records dating as far back as 611 A.D. mentions football-type games played between the two countries. The game then traveled from the Far East through the Middle East, as far south as Australia, and into Europe. Somewhere around the 9th century, it appeared in England as a game known as “folk football”. This game involved the whole town … townsfolk would kick a pig’s bladder from one end of town to another, with opponent’s goals at either end of town. The town’s folk took the game quite seriously, but eventually space restraints within the town and the violence that ensued caused the game to be banned, but not for long.
Over the years, schools began playing against one another. The rules and regulations continued to evolve and by the 1800s, dedicated soccer clubs began to emerge in Britain. Still not very well organized, it was pretty much an anything goes game. Players often tripped each other and kicking an opponent in the shins occurred more often than not.
It’s at this time that football was at a turning point. Soccer’s popularity was growing and the working classes were loving the game. The social elite had played the game as a hobby but the industrial workers had a different vision of the sport. Mill towns started having their own rival teams – Darwen, Accrington, Burnley Rovers, Blackburn Olympic, Clitheroe Central.
Enter a stonemason from Glasgow, Scotland, named Fergus Suter. Fergus was the very first professional soccer player. In 1878 he moved from Scotland to England to play for the Darwen team and is credited with changing the way the game was played. The first player ever to be paid for playing soccer, Suter was paid a considerable amount of money, £10 every other week. The average wage at that time for a mill worker was less than £2 a week. Being paid to play football was highly controversial and seen as against the rules. But Suter went on to win the Football Association cup not once but twice.
As Julian details in the series, the sport was formalized with the formation of the Football Association in 1863. What I love about any of the dramas Fellowes is involved with is his attention to detail. From the set designs to the costumes and, of course, the characters. Each character is portrayed accurately and honestly. It’s a fascinating look at a simple game, loved passionately by everyone … from the working class to the aristocratic elite.
Soccer has continued to grow to be the most popular sport in the world. Why? Because all you need is a ball … and it can be played anywhere, on any surface … in a park, on the street where you live, on the beach or a schoolyard. You don’t need expensive equipment. No racquets, no padding, no helmets or knee pads. No fancy footwear or jerseys. Rich or poor, male or female, everyone can play soccer.
Am I now a fan of Soccer? Probably not, but when you watch something being done well, it certainly stirs up an interest in you to find out more about it. Watching this mini-series certainly did it for me. And I may actually watch an entire game now and then. I’m not sure why soccer doesn’t have the same emotional connection to people here in the U.S., but it doesn’t. Perhaps as the kids who are playing it now in grade school grow up with soccer, we will join the rest of the world. One can only hope.