BY ANUSHREE NANDE
Football needs no introduction. Its popularity spans countries, languages, cultures and backgrounds. But how many of us know the roots of the sport that is more like a religion for us? How many of us are aware of the people who helped its expansion across the world and shaped it into what it is today? Fathers of Football: Great Britons Who Took The Game To The World by Keith Baker sheds some light on some of these men and traces the beginnings and development of football around the world from Italy to Hungary, Moscow to Austria, Barcelona to Bilbao and Argentina to Brazil.
It should come as no surprise that the Brits played a major role in this process (second to them are the Swiss who played an important part in the spread of football in western Europe). After all it has been clearly established that it was the Victorians, in the late 19th century, who organised the rules and made it into a real sport from its chaotic beginnings years ago. This sport then went along with them during their long travels overseas in search of trade, commerce and the spread of the British Empire.
But the book also clarifies that Britain, while a major player, didn´t have the monopoly over the international rise of the game. Austrian coach Hugo Meisl, the German Walther Bensemann and Hans Gamper from Switzerland (who helped found Zurich FC in 1897 and FC Barcelona in 1899) were among the other names who were keen scholars of football and aided its growth. It does, however, focus only on the British side of things.
It wasn’t until 1848 that any serious attempt was made for the standardisation of the rules of the game. However, even those Cambridge rules weren´t adopted as uniformly as was expected and it wasn´t until October 26, 1863 when it finally changed. On that day captains and representatives of London and its suburban clubs formed the Football Association (FA) and agreed upon a common set of rules and regulations which were soon to be adopted by all clubs, many of whom were still following the Sheffield rules after the first ever established club in the UK. This ensured that the British travelling abroad had clear guidelines to take along with them and that it was easier to establish new clubs and teams wherever they were in the world. This is a landmark occasion for the growth of modern football and one that was crucial for the sport to survive across generations and continents.
There are some valid observations about how the sport slowly began to surpass its public school, middle class roots and spread to other parts of society, most significantly the working classes. How the growing divide between the amateurs (supporting the Corinthian values), semi-professional and professional teams came to a crisis point before the formation of the league in 1887. It is also interesting to note how many sports clubs had their origins in the churches (over a quarter of the total number in the 1880s). Tracing the rise of the sport across Britain sets the scene for us to get an idea of the kind of atmosphere the ¨Fathers of Football” grew up in, the influences that shaped their philosophies of the game. For example, it is worthy to note that about half of the men in this book were either born in Scotland or had played for a Scottish club at one point in their lives – leading them to fall in love with the highly skilful Scottish style of play, with quick passing and close control of the ball, which was in stark contrast to the strength, energy and long upfield kicks of the English game. (In an ironic sense, how much has this changed in England? That´s a question for another day). This preference of the Fathers´ was significant because of how it would impact the development of football in Europe and South America, and lay the foundations of their current footballing legacies.
Most of these legacies can trace their origins back to the British expatriate communities that flourished around their trade points and ports, and the sports clubs they soon formed so as to be able to enjoy what had been an important part of their lives back in the United Kingdom. Though it should be noted that these were almost exclusively for the British and it was only later once they opened for the local youth and talent that the sport truly flourished in the respective cities and eventually countries.
If you consider the timelines of the various clubs discussed in the book, you can see that the late 1890s were the years of most activity. The Bilbao Football Club (exclusively British at that point) was founded in 1890s while the local Athletic Bilbao opened in 1898 (the two eventually merged in 1903 into what we now know as Athletic Club Bilbao). Other European clubs at that time included Slavia Prague which was founded in 1892, Genoa (September 1893), OKS which soon became Dynamo Moskva (1894), FC Barcelona (November 1899) and AC Milan (December 1899). Around the same time, much was happening in the South American continent. On February 21, 1893, the Argentine Association Football League (AAFL) was created by Alexander Hutton, and April 14, 1895 saw the first game on Brazilian soil under English FA rules courtesy of a certain Charles Miller.
Whether it was James Spensley and William Garbutt in Genoa, Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kiplin in Turin and Milan, the Charnock Brothers in Moscow, Fred Pentland in Bilbao, the Witty Brothers in Barcelona, Johnny Madden in Prague, Jimmy Hogan in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Charles Miller in Brazil or the Hogg Brothers and Alexander Hutton in Argentina – the stories, often humorous anecdotes and individual details, are the heart and soul of this book and therefore for the reader to discover and enjoy on their own.
All these men came from different backgrounds, places and circumstances, but what you do notice is that all of them shared certain traits, a common thread that runs through all their lives and stories. Apart from a kind of shared reverence for the sport, theirs was a life philosophy based on hard work, perseverance, insistence on good ethics and discipline. They had a vision of the game (how it should be played and trained for) that was different from what was the norm at the time. Many were also ahead of their time (Johnny Madden and Jimmy Hogan to name two) in recognising the importance of physical fitness and increased tactical awareness of the players. Each of them has played a crucial role in the development of the sport abroad (and also in many cases the birth and initial success of now well-known clubs), as well as in its evolution to a more skilled, tactical game whether as players, managers, coaches or founders. There was no lack of difficulties either, whether in the form of local and also expatriate opposition to the game, the changing socio-political scenarios especially during the World Wars, the economic part of a game that developed from an amateur status to professional.
Many of these Fathers didn´t set out with the intention of being what they ended up being. They simply wanted other countries and cultures to share their love for football. Many didn´t even want to leave their homeland but were driven away by a need to earn from their football acumen and knowledge abroad. Baker makes the case that the men he has written about in the book are lauded, remembered and celebrated even now in their respective countries for their services to football – whether by founding now world famous clubs or revolutionising the style of play, the mode of training and the development of tactics. However, there is scant recognition in relation to their country of birth. That is what this book hopes to rectify. It does it in fine style – succinct and in depth which is high praise since it isn´t a very long book. There is a tendency to be a bit effusive at times and make these men appear larger than life, but in the end it doesn´t really matter considering the content. However, this isn´t a book to be devoured in one sitting. There are too many details for our brain to process all at one time. But it should certainly be savoured leisurely, one chapter at a time so that we honour and remember those men whose lives were spent in pursuit of the evolution and growth of the game they were passionate about – a passion and love we now share.
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