We British appear to have laid claim to football, taking it on as our national sport (even though we don’t appear to be very good.) But was it actually invented by the British?
It was invented by the Pope.
Okay, that might be a slight overstatement, His Holiness himself probably did not come up with it personally. However our story does begin in Rome, 1506, under Pope Julius II.
It was in 1506 that PJII created the Papal Swiss Guard.
The Swiss Guard was created as a miniature army to act as protectors and bodyguards for the Pope. It remains performing this role to the present day, now also acting as militia for Vatican City. The modern Swiss Guard is made up of young, single males selected from the Swiss Army. They must have completed basic training with an excellent record – and, of course, be Catholic. Back when the Swiss Guard was created, it consisted mostly of mercenaries with a fair amount of battle experience but little, if any, formal training. PJII’s first recruits were good, honest soldiers but a little rough around the edges and needed refinement to be fully worthy of their new position. They were given a great deal of training focussed mainly on composure, decorum and grace.
One of the training techniques thought to help many of the clumsier recruits involved footwork. They used a ball and had to keep it under control through a series of obstacles to improve their balance and awareness. They were sometimes split into teams, one half trying to steal the ball and put the soldier off-balance, simulating outwitting an opponent in combat. They enjoyed these activities so much that they carried them out of the training grounds and began playing recreationally.
It soon became obvious that team-building exercises and games such as these were good for the soldiers. When they were engaged in team sports they were less inclined to engage in sinful activities; they were too busy to lust after women and too exhausted to stay up all night in a tavern drinking. The Church began to feel that it made them better Catholics and encouraged that others took up the hobby.
It spread over Europe and changed and adapted as it did so, leaving each country with a different style of play and ideas of how it should be run. Italy and Spain still had very strong roots in the footwork aspect, leading to the idea they still hold today that football should be ‘the beautiful game’. By the time it reached the UK many of these associations had been lost.
By 1863 football was strongly established over most of the Western world and some gentlemen from Cambridge University founded the first official Football Association in England. The rest, as they say, is history.