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The Changing Face of “The Beautiful Game”

05 May 2021

In April 2021, 12 football teams from England, Spain and Italy announced they had signed up to a “European Super League”, the latest revamp to our “Beautiful Game”.

However, after massive protests by fans, politicians, football management, club owners and governing bodies, the idea was scrapped a few days later.

Protesters said it would ruin the spirit of the game and create a rich elite that will price out the average fan and soak up all the young talent.

Here we look at the history of Football in England and Europe and some of the changes it has seen since a group of schools and clubs thrashed out a set of 14 rules that would form the basis of Association Football (Soccer).


For hundreds of years, football was basically a mob of people attempting to move a ball from one end of a village to another. By the early 1800s, public schools in England were beginning to play organised matches, each school having their own set of rules – this did create problems when trying to organise competitive matches.

In fact, it was not until October 1863 that anyone decided to sit down and pencil in a few laws for what was considered ‘an unruly pastime’.

For example, a throw-in was kicked in by the person who kicked it out, and there was no six-yard line or centre circle. Players could hack the shins of their opponents (made worse by the fact that before studs, players wore spiked boots), they could use elbows to get leverage in a tackle and goalkeepers could be charged down in their area even if they were nowhere near the ball.

In fact, pretty much the only thing they could not really do was heel kick or trip up their opponents from behind.

So, with the sport becoming ever more popular a meeting was held in the Freemason’s Tavern in London with the aim of creating a set of rules to standardise a game that has been played in England (in some form or other) since the middle ages.

Footy Gets “Hit For Six”

Not long after the Football Association (FA) was formed a former cricket captain turned footballer, Sam Wellar-Widdowson, created a raft of changes that eventually carved out the game we recognise today.

Even though many people have not even heard the name, he arguably became more influential on the fabric and development of football than Pele, Maradona, Best and Beckham all put together.

His first contribution came in 1874. Wellar-Widdowson took a pair of cricket shin guards, hacked them down and strapped them to the outside of his stockings and invented shinpads.

As the Victorian game was a little different than today’s effort, Widdowson was heavily ridiculed at first – eventually, many players saw the light and followed his example. It took another 100 years until the F.A. passed a ruling that all players must wear shin-guards.

The Wellar-Widdowson Effect Continues

Wellar-Widdowson’s second major contribution came four years later in 1878, in a game between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Norfolk (one of the teams that later conglomerated to form Sheffield United).

Before this match, referees (or umpires as they were called then), tried to keep order in the games using a system of white flags (much of the hand signals we see from referees today would have derived from these flag signals).

This proved to be a difficult task especially with the ever-growing crowds and atmospheres in the grounds. The referee’s whistle was therefore pioneered to restore some order into the game.

Afterwards, the Forest captain (our man Widdowson) was asked his opinion. He approved and so helped pass the ruling that referees must now use a whistle to communicate to the players.

Raising The Bar

In 1875, crossbars were invented to replace the tape that was being used. This led to Mr Wellar-Widdowson’s third contribution.

In 1891 The Town Ground in Nottingham was chosen to pioneer the latest invention that had just been made for football by a Liverpool man called James Brodie.

Brodie had the novel idea of attaching nets to the wooden goal frames. Strangely, the referee that day was…yep, you guessed it – our man Sam Wellar-Widdowson, who again gave his approval and recommendation to the F.A.

Tactics Make Perfect

Widdowson was not done yet. His biggest – and probably the most important – contribution was about to come.

During the late 1800s teams adopted many formations, with not much order to them at all, lining up with up to seven attackers and most of the time would have just 1 or 2 defenders and a couple of midfielders.

As Captain, he chose the team sheet and would line his players up with one goalkeeper, two backs, three half-backs, and five forwards, all with regimented roles and positions on the pitch which they were responsible for.

This formation was adopted by just about every team in the country and was the standard formation and tactics used in Association Football until we saw teams adopt the 4-4-2 formation in the ’60s and ’70s.

The World Stage

As Association Football was mainly played in England it took many years for it to take hold abroad. The first international matches took place in London between England and Scotland – well, Scottish players who lived in London.

In 1908 football became an official sport of the summer Olympics in London. The tournament was for amateurs only and saw Great Britain win the gold medals. The tournament also saw teams from Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden, and France take part.

Then, in the 1920s a Frenchman by the name Jules Rimet devised a concept for an international tournament. It would be hosted every four years and became known as the FIFA World Cup.

As more and more teams became involved the tournament grew from its original 16 teams in 1930 (7 of which came from the Americas after football missionaries started spreading the word of Joga Bonito) to its current 210 member associations fighting for Qualification.

The Mighty Magyars

If, as the song suggested, Football came home in the 90s, it was on 25 November 1953 it emphatically left. 105,000 spectators crammed into Wembley Stadium to watch what was later dubbed the Match of the Century.

Before this match, the England team had lost only once at home – a history stretching back 81 years to 1872. Hungary, the number 1 ranked team in the world arrived in London off the back of a 24-match unbeaten run and a set of Olympic Gold Medals to boot.

Hungary won the match 6 – 3 and showed a level of skill, fitness and ball control the likes of which had never been seen before. It was such an emphatic performance it led to a complete overhaul of the training, focus and tactics used in England, both at international and club level.

The world had just witnessed the birth of Total Football.

Football Goes Continental

The 1955/56 season saw the birth of the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens (European Champion Clubs’ Cup). Real Madrid dominated even back then winning the first 5 competitions, including a 7 – 3 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.

As the competition evolved into the Champions League more and more teams became involved – along with the money that flooded into the sport. Now, with 32 teams taking part generating revenue of €2.82 billion in the 2018/19 season it has become the wealthiest sporting competition in the world with a prize pool of $1.3b – twice that of Formula 1 in 2nd place.

Sky’s The Limit

In 1992 the new broadcasting company BSB began broadcasting matches from the newly formed Premier League in football’s latest facelift.

Attracted by huge amounts of money offered for TV rights, the face of “The Beautiful Game” in England changed forever. As fans now had to subscribe to watch football on TV for the first time, coupled with the lack of funds cascading down the football pyramid, huge protests were held to prevent the Premier League from forming.

Arguments (that to be fair, were very similar to what we heard recently about the European Super League) about elitism and the soaking up of young talent, widening the gap between the rich successful clubs and the rest were being shouted from the rafters.

There was even a threat of a player strike if the Premier League went ahead. After many discussions by the FA, The Football League and even the government the Premier League kicked off in August 1992 and now generates around £5.15bn a season in revenue.

Not-So-Super League

So, with the protests above in mind, it does seem a little strange the same Premier League clubs, owners and fans used the same arguments to prevent to formation of the proposed European Super League.

Protests were so vociferous it took a matter of days for most of the teams to pull out. Only Barcelona and Real Madrid are still maintaining the plans are “on hold”.

But money talks in football and the possibility of opening up to billions of fans worldwide (and the TV deals that come with it) might be too alluring – even with the threats from FIFA and various Football Associations to ban participants, only time will tell as to the future of The Beautiful Game.

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