Football – in various forms – has existed for millennia. Historic evidence suggests that people in ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Rome enjoyed sports that involved kicking or handling a ball in a designated field of play.
It was most likely the Romans who spread the game they called harpastum throughout Europe and eventually to the British Isles, where the game took hold as mellay. As the later derived term melee suggests, this early form of football was characterized by wild mob action. Legend says the first mellay ball was actually the head of a Danish pirate. During Tudor times, football was characterized by injuries and fatalities, and laws were passed against the “devilish game” because it was depleting the workforce.
By 1700s, Football Players Adopted Rules, and the Game Began to Resemble Modern-Day Soccer
Over the centuries, rules were applied to mellay, and the sport gradually became more civilized, even though it was considered a game for commoners. By the 18th century, the game resembled modern-day soccer. At English secondary schools like Eton and Harrow, it was adopted as a popular intramural. However, rules varied from school to school – with one exception: players could not carry the ball.
Yet, as lovers of rugby and American football know, that rule was eventually broken. In 1823 William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby secondary school located on the edge of the town of Rugby in Warwickshire, made a desperate attempt to win a game by catching a long kick and running with the ball toward the opponent’s goal line. Although his score was not allowed, it put a new concept into motion. In 1841, carrying the ball was included in the rule book at Rugby, which gave its name to the now international sport.
Rugby games, played on the school’s eight-acre Close, could sometimes last for days and include more than 200 boys. Players’ boots were often beveled in the front to slice into the shins of opponents.
Rugby is Adopted as Part of University Sports in England by the 1850s
By the 1850s, soccer and rugby were part of university sports throughout England. Communities also formed independent clubs, which adopted organized rules. The first association of note was the Oxford University Rugby Football Club, founded in 1869. Two years later, the Rugby Football Union was formed in London. The first university match in England was played in 1872, and graduates spread the game to other countries, including Wales and Scotland.
Soccer and Rugby are Brought to America by Colonists, Immigrants
Early colonists brought soccer to America, and immigrants of the mid-19th century introduced rugby. Soon the two games blended into what is now known as American football, which has its own unique set of rules.