Why didn't rugby spread across Europe?

Football - more than a game

Franz-Josef Brüggemeier

To person

Born in Bottrop in 1951, is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Freiburg. He publishes on the social and economic history of the 19th and 20th centuries, most recently with a focus on environmental history and the history of modern sport. He is also a member of the steering group of major historical exhibitions, including: Fire and Flame. 200 years of the Ruhr area (Gasometer Oberhausen 1994/1995); in the middle. Saxony-Anhalt in history (Vockerode power plant 1998); The ball is round. The football exhibition (Gasometer Oberhausen 2000).

Contact: [email protected]

The beginnings of modern football lie in England. The game quickly gained supporters in Germany. At first it was based on the bourgeoisie, but then increasingly became a working class sport.

Traditional football became famous in Britain in the early 19th century. (& copy AP)


Statements about the beginnings of football move on difficult terrain. Variants can be found in many cultures, be it with the Aztecs, in Japan and Southeast Asia, in China and several times in Europe. In Italy and England in particular, comparable ball games can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In contrast to them, modern football has clear rules. The size of the playing field, the length of the game and the number of players are fixed; everyone must adhere to binding rules and accept the referee's decisions. At first glance, these regulations seem like a corset that creates unnecessary constraints and leaves no room for free play. In fact, it was only these supposed constraints that enabled the mixture of individuality, team spirit and free development of those involved that characterize modern football. Its European predecessors, on the other hand, were rough variants in which almost any number of people could take part, who fought for a ball on unspecified areas - sometimes entire districts or villages - adhered to elementary rules at best and often attacked each other quite violently. In individual places, such as Florence, these forms live on, but now largely for the entertainment of tourists.

Great Britain pioneers

In England, traditional football was banned several times because of its excesses, was increasingly discredited and lost in importance - only to celebrate an unexpected resurrection at some of the boarding schools that are still famous today. There the school principals had to struggle with discipline problems and at the same time wanted to convey new values ​​to the (male) children of the aspiring middle classes, who raised their offspring at these elite schools. Both goals could be achieved through football, because it not only served for physical training and offered an outlet for aggression, but also made it possible to practice the rules of fair play and to develop team spirit. The rules remained vague at first and still contained many elements of today's rugby.

As long as only individual boarding schools, pubs or clubs played football (or rugby) and the teams came from the local area, the participants each set up their own rules. However, when the teams became more numerous, they had to agree on uniform rules in order to be able to play games at all. In October 1863, for example, the aforementioned meeting took place in London, at which binding rules for football were agreed and at the same time its separation from rugby was laid down - also because more and more players were no longer pupils or students, but had a job and not an unnecessary one Wanted to risk injuries.

Source text

Football was born

[...] The modern football game did not come about on the green lawn, but on the green table:

On October 23, 1863, representatives of football teams from the prestigious public schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge met at the Freemasons' Tavern in London to standardize the very different rules of the game of the individual educational institutions. They wanted to create the conditions so that their teams could play matches among themselves [...]. As a result of this gentlemen's meeting, [...] not only the establishment of binding rules of the game, but also the founding of a Football Association (FA) [...]. It can be argued that this was the hour of birth of modern football, because these two measures together created the prerequisites for the successful institutionalization and at the same time the reproduction of the football game. The specific design of the rules of the game and the game were also trend-setting:
First, during their deliberations, the founders decided against an egg-shaped ball game popular at rugby school, which allowed handball and kicking the opponent ("hacking"), and agreed on another variant: the one with one A spherical ball that the field players were only allowed to pass with their feet. This style of play was less prone to injury and also suitable for professionals. She left space for strength and artistry, calculation and spontaneity. And since the athletes had to take on certain roles, such as the striker, defender or goalkeeper, individuality and community spirit, egocentricity and self-sacrifice, starry airs and heroism could develop like in a drama.
Second, the Football Association claimed absolute authority over their game. It not only arranged for the agreed rules to be published, but also took precautions to enforce them by licensing arbitrators and other specialist personnel. These measures prevented disputes among the athletes. At the same time, they had the effect that a line was drawn between the abstract game and its concrete environment and that interventions by outsiders in the competition were repulsed. So the soccer game remained related to itself and was able to develop its own world character.
Third, the Football Association stimulated game traffic. The decisive measures for this were the organization of a league system down to the local level and the donation of a trophy, the "FA Cup", which has been played since 1871. In this way, indirect performance comparisons between the teams could also be drawn. At the same time, the games, which in themselves were discrete events, were brought into a continuity and given a "story" ("legendary matches", the "era" of certain clubs, players, etc.). Football thus became an element of the "culture of modernity", which, according to a common definition, is characterized by the fact that it is able to combine the "temporary", the "accidental" with the "eternal". And: Due to the frequency of the matches, the soccer game was able to enter into the symbiosis with press and commerce, which is so important for its further development.
Fourth, the Football Association waived the establishment of social criteria for participation. In contrast to the comparable organizations for athletics, rowing and swimming, which were founded only a few years later, the one for football did not even have the word "amateur" in its name. Apparently the gentlemen had not foreseen that the game could ever be anything other than social amusement for their own kind. [...]

Christiane Eisenberg, football as a global phenomenon. Historical Perspectives, in: From Politics and Contemporary History
B 26/2004 of June 21, 2004, p. 7f.



This concern was voiced by workers in Great Britain, among whom football was rapidly spreading. Towards the end of the 19th century they had achieved a significantly higher standard of living than in any other European country, had a Saturday afternoon off and earned enough to be able to afford the necessary equipment (ball, shoes), tickets and even travel to games. So the number of active players and especially the spectators soared and created a market of its own, which in turn drove the spread of football. Because with the audience, the income grew, the competition between the teams increased and with it the interest in good players who received more and more money. Some were even able to practice this sport as a profession, thereby training better and improving their performance, which in turn attracted more spectators and led to efforts to have the attractive teams compete against each other more often. This is how cup competitions emerged, including the FA Cup, which still exists today and was held for the first time in 1871/72.

These developments were overshadowed by increasing conflicts between civic clubs and workers' teams. In the beginning, the upper-class players dominated, who did not have to do any hard physical work, could spend more time on the sport and provided the better teams. But with increasing commercialization, the situation changed: In 1883, the Blackbourn Olympics, a workers' team from Lancaster, met the Old Etonians, who came from one of the elite schools that still exist today, in the cup final. Thanks to good preparation and financial support from a local entrepreneur, the Blackbourn team won the final, which none of the amateur amateur teams would win in the following years. Their representatives turned out to be bad losers, complained about the increasing influence of money and wanted to ban the use of professional footballers. But in the meantime the clubs from the industrial areas had gained great influence and attracted so many spectators that they threatened to set up their own association and prevailed. Professional football was approved in 1885 and shortly thereafter a league was founded, which began playing in 1888. This also spurred interest in this sport, so that by 1900 more than a hundred thousand spectators flocked to the stadiums for important games.

This describes developments that were not restricted to Great Britain. Rather, they were soon to be found in the other countries in which football based on the English model had spread since the end of the 19th century, including Germany. Their characteristics were:
  • an initial dominance of the upper classes, who had more time and financial resources and were in close contact with the British;
  • the gradual takeover of football by workers once their standard of living became adequate;
  • a rapidly growing popularity of this sport, increasing commercialization and related conflicts between representatives of amateur and professional sports.