Football and the Invisible Hand



In 1778, Adam Smith in his classical book “The Wealth of Nations” coined the term “The Invisible Hand”. This invisible hand drove individuals, nations, and industries towards prosperity, while at the same time, uplifting the poor and the downtrodden. This balance within the economy was maintained, argued Smith, by a certain invisible hand, deeply ingrained in human psychology.

The concept of the invisible hand is actually derived from that of sociology, as economy can only operate within a society. This invisible hand also operates within the realm of evolutionary biology. In the field of evolution, the invisible hand, said Darwin, was natural selection, operating on genes over billions of years.

The invisible hand explains why our hunter gatherer ancestors came to form tribes and families, eventually giving rise to societies. Humans came together because of their vivid powers of imagination and communication. Ideas began to unite them. These ideas depicted theories often governed by a set of rules. Religion, law and order were all such ideas bringing people together across varied tribes, who, then went on to form a culture and a society of their own.

Sport is also a glaring example to the testament of the powers of the human imagination. Our foraging forefathers came together and set up rules as to how or when a particular game was to be played. Rules were also laid down as to who could participate in such sports. Soon local families began to play, and they slowly evolved to become a tightly knit community.

The prevailing rules were solidified, torn down, and evolved to give rise to new rules, according to the needs of the changing society. As societies developed and evolved, so did the rules.

For instance, the Roman rulers played their own version of football. It was played in a court called Sphaerista for Expulsum Ludere. This game was characterised by throwing, kicking and dodging the ball. Over time, these rules changed to give rise to a style more akin to that of football in Florence which we are familiar with today – the Calcio, a name still associated with Italian Football.

The Calcio was not only popular among the ordinary people, but also among the elite Roman Catholic Popes. Popes Clement VII, Leo IX, and Urban VIII played a little Calcio themselves, in their own backyard – The Holy Vatican Gardens.

The rules of football or the origins of football, so to speak, gained their initial thrust in England back in the 18th Century. This was pretty unexpected as England witnessed the birth of football relatively early. Football first came to the shores of the British Isles about a few thousand years ago. At that time, football was fiercely dominated by the Celtic tribes of Ireland. Across the English Channel, the French in Brittany and Normandy played their own version of Football – the Soule, since the medieval times.

The practice of football, though widely popular in its initial days, faced much resistance, mostly due to the violent manner in which the games were played. Owing to the lack of a fixed set of rules, games often resulted in animosity and hostility among players, spectators and authorities alike.

In 1314, King Edward condemned the game as unruly and declared it as “evil”.

“For as much there is as great noise in the city, caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise which Gods forbid”.

Between 1330 and 1660, over 30 orders were passed by the British authorities prohibiting football. The game was viewed as a catalyst for the disruption of public order, and argued that the game was causing undesirable effects on military preparedness.

By the eighteenth century, football was wiped out from the urban social strata, and replaced by tennis and cricket. Football though, was continued to be played by a small minority faction of the lower working class people.

This class separation, which started in England, slowly began to permeate through to other nations as well, most notably in the colonies that the European countries held at that time. The European powers considered themselves to be at the forefront of the global civilisation, while other countries held the Western model to be the norm of the day. Gradually, there became an insurmountable gap between the civilised people and the working class “barbarians”.

In this light, football became a sport for the barbarians and the football pitch was seen by the civilised people as a battlefield. Gradually, the game became more condemned and less practiced. However, this was all to change, as it was in England where the modern game, which we know of today, would be born.

The transition from the revolutionary, violent sport of the barbarians to the sport which was considered greater than life and death itself began in the 19th century. However, the seeds of the rebirth of football were planted long before, towards the end of the 18th century, courtesy of a movement which would change the course of mankind forever – the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was unlike anything that mankind had ever witnessed before. It brought about an immense social, political, cultural and economic upheaval across all of Europe. England being the birthplace of the Revolution was at the very core of all these changes. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was at work.

The mass urbanisation which ensued during the Industrial Revolution was gruesome for many of the workers. Most were paid low wages, and were forced to work long, tiring hours. Working people were discouraged from getting together, and organising in groups as the authorities saw in it a chance for revolt against the power of the factory owners.

During the middle of the 18th century, the legislators in England came to realise that weak and sickly workers would not be productive. There was a growing need for the establishment of new open spaces for the workers and the funding of healthy leisure pursuits. In 1850, the British Parliament passed the Factory Act. Workers now could not be made to work before 6am in the morning and after 6pm in the evening. On Saturdays, the workers could not be made to work post 2pm.

Four years after the passing of the Factory Act, the first Football club – Sheffield FC – was formed. It was a club formed by students as well as by the emerging industrial and merchant class.

Sport participation was promoted to ensure that workers were in a healthy physical condition to contribute in the factories. Now, up until the Industrial revolution, football and rugby were indistinguishable from one another. The rules of play varied according to where the game was being played.

This changed in November 1863 with the creation of the Football Association (FA). The FA was formed in a meeting held at the Freemason’s Tavern in Central London. Representatives from eleven teams, among which were Kennington School and Crystal Palace, intended to establish a set of definitive rules for the governance and development of the game. The FA had two new rules – the use of hands and tripping players was prohibited. It was also here in the FA Rules that the offside rule was first incorporated.

In 1871, many clubs left the FA due to these new rules. These clubs in turn went on to form the Rugby Football Union, formally severing the ties between rugby and football.

By 1891, the third official – previously relegated to merely assisting the two umpires on the field – now became a referee. This referee was given full control of the game and how it was to be played. In the same rules shake-up, the penalty kick was introduced for fouls committed within the 18-yard box. In 1912, the goalkeeper was restricted to handling the ball in his own area.

In 1867, the FA had only ten member teams. Within 40 years that number exceeded 10,000. Football had become the spectacle of the masses.

Football thrived in towns which were heavily industrialised. Towns such as Liverpool and Manchester became hotbeds of the sport. Migrant workers coming from different parts of Europe began to share a mutual interest with the Englishmen. Football was their shared love.

Football unified workers across nations, religions and cultures. It had now, well and truly become a sport of the masses. The invisible hand of sport which had united our foraging ancestors would now unite the world in its grasp.