Football, the most popular sport on the planet, was basically born in a pub in England in 1863, when some individuals decided to work out rules for a game that was already being played regularly in that country, with a view to distinguishing it from another. A very popular method there: rugby.
The fact is that in less than four decades, football has already existed in many countries around the world.
Among its reasons for this spread was the fact that the sport was born in the most powerful power on the planet at that time: the United Kingdom, which controlled vast territories around the world.
However, football is not currently the most played or followed sport in the many territories that were once vassals of the mighty British Empire.
In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, for example, rugby is more popular than football, while in India and Pakistan cricket is almost a religion.
“What happened with Australia or India is that when the British arrived, the national sport in England was cricket, not football. And rugby was the favorite sport of the aristocrats sent to rule these places,” sports historian Jan Williams explains.
Football was a sport for the middle and working class in the UK at the time, Williams explains.
“The spread of football in the world is due to two reasons: first, the spread of railways built by English engineers, and second, the academic exchange that took place with people from other countries, especially from Latin America and Asia,” notes Williams.
Cricket and Rugby: Sports of the Empire
Cricket is a ball and bat game (like baseball, but with substantial differences in placement and strategy) played on an oval field where the main objective is to score points(s).
The sport, which has its roots in the Middle Ages, became the national sport of England from the 18th century onwards, and of course during the heyday of the British Empire.
Added to this is the popularity of another modality: rugby, which for decades was considered a “wild sport played by gentlemen”.
“These sports were concentrated in the upper classes and the leaders of the time. What they did was introduce them almost officially in regions like Australia, India or South Africa,” says Williams.
Although cricket was indeed brought to India by British merchants in the seventeenth century, it was the conquest of these lands in the mid-nineteenth century that gave the sport the recognition it retains there today.
Something similar happened with rugby, which also began to spread in the middle of the 19th century, mainly in Oceania and South Africa.
In the article, historian Patrick Hutchinson notes, “Sport in the British Empire acted as a unifying force, was often imbued with nationalist rhetoric, and served for focused representations of the climate of social and political struggle.” Sport and British Colonialism (“Sport and British Colonialism”, in a free translation).
This influence has made India and Pakistan – as well as Australia – the powerhouses of cricket today.
In rugby, the only men’s teams to be world champions other than England have been New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, all former British colonies.
In fact, the most popular sport in Australia is Australian rules football, which is a mixture of cricket, rugby and soccer, and is very similar to the first version of English rugby.
Moreover, football had two characteristics that alienated it from those colonial lands: it was codified late (in 1863) and had roots in the British middle class and working class.
“By the time football became the most popular sport in the UK, cricket and rugby had become well established in the colonies and were still the favorite sport of the upper classes and aristocracy,” explains Williams.
However, this does not mean that football was not used by the imperial authorities as a “unifying force”, especially in the British African colonies.
“In Zanzibar, in Egypt and elsewhere, leagues were set up with the intention of exercising a form of control through sport. Football was used for that,” says Hutchison.
But the sport also had other avenues to expand.
further from the railway tracks
At the beginning of the 20th century, the major world power was still the British Empire, with territories that stretched across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
In Europe, the sport has become popular thanks to the presence of expats who have traveled to different countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
However, in other latitudes, a major form of influence was the building of railways, a British invention.
“Many believe that it was the railway workers who carried football around the world. But in fact, it was the engineers, because football was the sport of the middle class in England,” says the academic.
According to Williams, these professionals were influential enough not only to take up the sport, but to teach it and carry it out in an orderly fashion in these countries, as the aristocrats did through the colleges in the colonies with cricket and rugby.
At the beginning of the 20th century, especially in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the first clubs began to be created, many of which have names in English that still exist: River Plate or Boca Juniors (Argentina); Club Nacional de Futbol (Uruguay) and Football Club Fluminense (Brazil), for example.
“What happened to football is that it didn’t fall into categories: it became popular at all levels. [na América Latina]Williams explains.
But the expert points out that the railways were not the only way to spread football around the world: students and visitors to the UK were a huge way to spread the sport.
“Many of those who left Latin America or Asia to study at an English university saw the sport as very popular and wanted to bring it back to their home countries,” says Williams.
Examples abound: Deportivo Cali, one of the most traditional clubs in Colombia, was founded by the Nazario brothers, Juan Pablo and Fidel Lalende Caldas, who traveled to the UK in the early 20th century and spent about five years there.
Charles Miller himself, who was considered responsible for bringing football to Brazil at the end of the 19th century after studying in England, was the son of a Scottish engineer who worked on the railways in the state of São Paulo.
“Football, which was born in England, became something of an aspiration for people living outside the British Empire and many football clubs were founded by people who traveled to the UK,” he says.
But there were areas that had British influence, such as the United States or Canada, where football also failed to take root.
“Soccer has tried to enter American culture many times, but the rules and scoring have not helped the game become more popular,” says James Brown of the Association of Soccer Historians of the United States.
For Brown, Americans love contact sports with dynamic scores, where the highest scores can be achieved.
“But the truth is that until the age of 16, soccer is the most popular sport played by American youth. So, there is a future for this sport in the country.”
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