Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part II

This is the second part of my series on why Americans don’t play soccer, and everyone else does. Part I can be found here. In this part I will discuss where football came from in the first place, and the initial split into its soccer and Rugby versions.

Modern football evolved from an English medieval folk game. It is traditional at this point to talk about even earlier games, throwing out a bit of Latin and Greek in a speculative manner. I don’t necessarily disagree with this. I don’t believe that some medieval genius was the first to have the idea of inflating a pig’s bladder and kicking it around. But tracing the game back to Roman times requires optimistic guesswork and, more to the point, is irrelevant to this discussion. For our purposes what is important is that the various modern football codes come from the game as played in England. [1]

The traditional version of this history goes something like this: A medieval football game was a large, disorganized, and brutish affair. Entire villages would compete against one another en masse, with only rudimentary rules. These games were often played on Shrove Tuesday, and so the game is often called Shrovetide Football.  The game is often assumed, by the more romantically inclined, to be a survival of a pagan fertility rite. Two masses of humanity thrusting back and forth until the ball spurts into the goal: this stuff practically writes itself. I offer no specific opinion on this other than a general observation that lots of things look like pagan fertility rites, if you have a dirty mind, and that more of then than not this doesn’t stand up to close examination.

The key transition, in the traditional version, is from these disorganized mass games to competitions between relatively small sides of defined number of players, typically around one or two dozen. The Shrovetide games were dying out under the withering glare of Godly Protestantism, with its disapproval of anything that smacked of Paganism or Popishness or fun. Football survived, however, in the public schools, in the English sense of the term (what Americans would call private boarding schools). You are familiar with these, even if you don’t know it: think Hogwarts, but all male, and with more buggery. The public schools nurtured football and developed it into its smaller defined-side form. Then in the early Victorian era, former students (“old boys”) started forming clubs to play football, with modern organizations such as the Football Association the result.

This traditional version of football history is about two-thirds bullshit. The first tell is that bit about football dying out. This factoid comes from The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, a book published in 1801 by Joseph Strutt, one of those marvelous 18th century English antiquarians, as well as being the picture of athletic masculinity.

He wrote 

It was formerly much in vogue among the common people of England, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute, and is but little practised.

joseph_strutt_1749-1802That is straightforward enough, but Strutt also describes the game as between “two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors” and the playing field as being “between two goals, placed at a distance of eighty or an hundred yards, the one from the other.” This clearly is the smaller, defined sides version which he says is dying out, and with no public schools in sight.

The second tell is the suspiciously strong presence of early organized football in the decidedly unfashionable city of Sheffield. The Sheffield Football Club, founded in 1857, has a better than average claim at being the oldest club playing by Association rules. Before that it produced the first published football code in 1858, which in turn influenced the Football Association rules. The Sheffield F.C. was not only located in Darkest Yorkshire, it was composed of decidedly unglamourous men of middle class background, not old boys at all.

The true parts of the traditional version are that there really were (and still are, in a few places) those massed Shrovetide games and public school old boys really did organize the Football Association. But those massed games were distinct from small-side football long before the public schools took over, and contra Strutt, the game was actively played in (at least some parts of) England, even apart from the public schools. The old boys subsequently either (a) accepted the call of noblesse oblige and shouldered the burden of putting football on a modern, organized footing, or (b) muscled in where their social inferiors were doing just fine, thank you very much, and then took credit for it. Take your pick. Either way, it was the old boys who went on to write the histories, and this is why we have the traditional, mostly bogus version.

This brings us up to the 1860s. We have a collection of clubs centered on London composed of former public school students, plus various provincial clubs. The London clubs gathered in 1863 to form the F.A. and write a set of rules for competition between the various members.

So far so good, except that they couldn’t agree on the rules. When we talk about football in the public schools, we shouldn’t imagine them competing against one another. They were too isolated, and the road system too undeveloped, for that to be a possibility. The games were intramural. (Again, think of Hogwarts’ quidditch matches, but with less-stupid rules.) This was still pre-modern football. One characteristic of pre-modern sport is that the rules are not standardized, varying from place to place, sometimes varying wildly. The London clubs formed along school lines, and therefore playing the game however their particular school played.

One example of such variance was the practice of “hacking.” This is a colorful English term for kicking each other in the shins. Strutt describes the practice thusly:

When the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other’s shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs.

By the 1860s players were wearing cleats, making hacking not only unceremonious, but considerably bloody as well. Whether or not the F.A. should allow hacking was a major debate. One supporter proclaimed that if hacking was eliminated

You will do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.

Gotta admire that cheap shot about the French: Oh, snap! In other words, if you can’t take your shins being bloodied a bit, how can you possibly expect to conquer an empire? The response was

If we have hacking, no one who has arrived at the age of discretion will play at football and it will be entirely left to schoolboys.

Astonishingly enough, the anti-hacking faction won out. (You will also note that Britain no longer has an empire. Coincidence?)

There was another, more serious disagreement: what actions were permitted following a fair catch? This question might seem like gibberish to someone raised on soccer, but to an American sports fan it is merely surprising. The fair catch is an ancient feature of the game, but it has disappeared from most versions. It survives in American football, Australian football, and Rugby Union (called a “mark” in the latter two).

The fair catch serves in modern American football as a tool for self-preservation. The player who receives a punted ball ordinarily has the right to attempt to advance with it. Sometimes, however, the punting team has time to reach him before he makes the catch, placing them in a position to take off his head while in the act of catching the ball. So he has the option to instead signal for a fair catch. The punting team isn’t allowed to take him down, but he waives the right to attempt to advance the ball.

This is how the fair catch plays out in modern American football, but a vestige of its earlier function is still in the rule book; the fair catch kick. [2] The receiving team has the option of following a fair catch with either a place kick or a drop kick. Kickoffs and field goal attempts are the usual examples of place kicks. The place kick following a fair catch is more like a kickoff, because the defending team is required to start the play at least ten yards distant. (Don’t worry about what is a drop kick. It is another vestigial rule, and a topic for another day.) Apart from this, the fair catch kick is just like a field goal attempt, scoring three points if successful.

This rule is invoked very rarely. The last time it occurred in an NFL game was in 2013. How does it work in practice? Suppose it is the closing seconds of the half. The team with possession of the ball is backed up on its own goal line on fourth down. They punt the ball, but it is not a great punt. There is only going to be time for the receiving team to make one play. The punt receiver, if properly coached, will take a fair catch. The key is that the ensuing kick is unopposed. A normal field goal attempt is a tightly timed sequence of events. Under the best of circumstances it is easy for something to go wrong. If it is a long kick, this is not the best of circumstances, as the resulting low trajectory of the ball is liable to being blocked. Add to this seven yards behind the line of scrimmage for where the ball is actually kicked. A fair catch kick has none of these liabilities. So in rare circumstances a fair catch kick makes sense.

The fair catch kick nowadays is a point of football trivia, but it was a real thing in the early game, and was included in the early F.A. rules. This, however, was not good enough for everybody. The game as played at Rugby School had acquired a peculiar feature: a player could carry the ball and run toward the opponents’ goal. [3] The Rugby old boys wanted the new F.A. rules to accommodate this by giving the kick receiver a second option following a fair catch, to run with the ball. The other side would then be granted the right to charge him, trip or hold him and, inevitably, to hack him. These were gentlemen, of course, so the proposed rule forbade them to simultaneously hold and hack the ball carrier. (It is breathtaking to contemplate what the Empire would be today had they allowed this!)

The argument went back and forth over multiple sessions, but the differences proved irreconcilable. The nascent Association in the end rejected the run rule. The clubs that favored it held out, and in 1871 formed their own organization, the Rugby Union.

So there we have it. Football in the second quarter of the 19th century developed from an unorganized pre-modern sport into a codified modern game, but in the process has split into two forms. They would go on to diverge further. The F.A. soon abandoned the fair catch entirely, while the Rugby Union rules expanded the opportunities to run. (The definition of a fair catch was narrowed to the kind that wasn’t followed by a run, eventually leading to the modern American football fair catch.)

The following parts of this series will show the competition between these two forms for the hearts and minds of the masses. The next installment will discuss football in American sporting culture, with the Rugby version winning out over the Association version, and then being modified nearly beyond recognition into American football.

[1] The possible exception is Gaelic football, but also possibly not. The Irish wanted to play football, but they didn’t want to play an English game, so they created their own version. How much it borrowed from native Irish traditions and how much was invented to differentiate it from English football is not clear, at least to me.

[2] Actually, this survives only in professional and high school: not in NCAA football. Go figure.

[3] The story is that this was an innovation of William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School, who in 1823 ran with the ball, the rules notwithstanding. The other students were so impressed by this blatant cheating that they adapted the rules to allow it. This story merits the same credence as that of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball.


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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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16 thoughts on “Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part II

  1. If Britain allowed hacking, we would all be singing Rule Brittania whole roasting roast beef and plum pudding washed down with pints of ale or glasses of sherry, Port, or claret.

    This is fascinating stuff man.

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  2. You left out the part where Chelsea FC was founded, which all right-thinking people agreed was a very bad thing indeed.

    Have you read The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper by Jonathan Wilson? Good stuff, especially if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying to be a goalkeeper.

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    • Upvote the Wilson recommendation. I have many times tried to pass _Inverting The Pyramid_ on people as a good survey of tactics through history.

      I don’t think that’s stealing any thunder from this excellent survey – Richard is unlikely to be diving very deep into tactics, as that’s not the point. But if one is interested, Wilson strikes a decent balance – ‘accessible’ while not too often ‘oversimplified’.

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  3. The post-fair catch field goal is the holy grail of football. I’m in my 25th year of high school officiating and I’ve never even seen an attempt.

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    • I totally agree. I love vestigial survivals in sports rule. The dropped third strike is the only really good example in baseball. The football rules, on the other hand, have never undergone a really thorough housecleaning, so all sorts of old stuff clutters up the attic. What makes the post-fair catch field goal the holy grail is that there is a legitimate scenario where it makes good game sense to try it. The drop kick, on the other hand, serves no purpose in modern American football. You occasionally hear of guys with a sense of history trying it, or more often lobbying their coach unsuccessfully for permission to try it, but this is essentially a gimmick, not anything that serves a genuine purpose.

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  4. You will do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.

    Which is exactly what ESPN comment sections say about outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits, other than replacing “Frenchmen” with “vaginas”.

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  5. I have developed quite a fondness for Australian footy – catch it quick, the playoffs are just starting…
    Odd that, in some specific ways, it’s “truer” to the pre-split game. than either rugby or soccer. While the years of divergence make the overall impression quite different from either.

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    • I am no expert on Australian rules football, but my understanding is that it is a separate line of development from either Association or Rugby football. Australia was settled early enough, and was isolated enough, that it developed its own football tradition from the pre-modern antecedent versions.

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      • I’m certainly no expert, either, and it’s possible that they started from a different place and borrowed things they happened to like. I just feel that the whole “Catch the ball, drag a mark with your heel, retreat ten yards, then choose to kick for goal or take off running” is as true to the spirit of the early game as anything is today – certainly more than e.g. the offside rule. The rest of the game they play, with the, um, interesting compromise between “no forward passing” and “throw the fishing thing as far as you can”, has nothing in common with anything anyone else is playing (modulo the ruck, which looks a lot like rugby’s solution to the same problem).
        I was kind of riffing on how a game can develop practically everything so that it looks unlike its forebearers, but a few things are practically identical, and they kind of stand out. Baseball has a few of those, too, and I expect those things will be touched on at some point when you’re done with Assoc.

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