Documents that Changed the World: Rules of Association Football (soccer), 1863

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National Football Museum

The original hand-written “Laws of the Game” drafted for The Football Association in 1863 on display at the National Football Museum, Manchester, England.

A recent New Yorker cartoon explains the game of soccer with disarming simplicity: “Here’s a ball. Try to get it in the goal. One rule: You may not use your hands. Go.”

As the final four nations vie for the 2014 World Cup title in Brazil, Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School looked into the game’s history and rules for his Documents that Changed the World podcast series, and found nothing simple about them — thanks in part to the English.

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

“Rules are rules,” Janes says in his podcast, “and nobody knew that as well as the people who tried to bring some order and coherence to an ancient and sometimes dangerous game, now generally regarded as the most popular sport in the world.”

Documents that Changed the World podcasts:

Though games involving balls date back thousands of years, Janes traces actual football — sorry, soccer — back to 19th century English public schools. He says they served “as incubators and crucible for football, each developing their own slightly different in-house version of the game, leading to inevitable confusion when they played each other.”

Though compromise rules were compiled in 1846, it was not until 1863, Janes says, that meetings were held in “taverns across London” (of course) to decide rules on which all could agree.

“Not an easy task,” Janes says in the podcast. “They got stuck on whether the game should involve catching or not, and whether ‘hacking,’ which we would call ‘kicking in the shins,’ should be allowed.”

He found also that the codifying of soccer rules was part of a larger pattern of “organizing” sports in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Joe Janes, professor, UW Information School

Joe Janes

“Until I did this, I hadn’t thought fully about how critical rules are in defining what a sport really is,” Janes said. “As I say in the episode, the sport is the rules and the rules are the sport, and as I borrowed from one of the sources I used — sport without rules is just play.”

And those very rules, Janes found, “provide boundaries and restrictions and, thus, encourage creativity to make the most of those, bump up against the edges of them, and gain a competitive advantage.”

Janes said his personal interest in sports prompted the installment.

“If I had a decent drop shot or serve that spun away in the deuce court — and there wasn’t a net — I would long ago have won Wimbledon, I’m convinced,” he said.

  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 95,000 downloads there so far.
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