Has football become a non-contact sport? You hear the question all the time, as if it were a new one. But, to all intents and purposes, it was the main item on the agenda 152 years ago when the Football Association’s founding fathers met in a London tavern to devise the Laws of the Game. All you need to do is change the tense. ‘Should football be a non-contact sport?’ That was the essence of what Ebenezer Morley and colleagues were deciding.
It’s a bit of a sore point with me at the moment because Morley’s old house at Barnes by the Thames, where he drafted rules ready for consideration at a series of meetings in December 1863, is now a gaping hole, due to the efforts of supposed renovators who, earlier this winter, left the historical building little more than a pile of rubble. As things stand, I don’t know whether a faithful rebuilding is to be ordered; in a better world, it would be mandatory.
But this is to digress. The point is that the character of football was being formed all those years ago, and that the shaping criterion was how it should differ from that of rugby; until then the codes had been barely distinguishable in many minds, as far as can be judged now.
Morley, for example, came to the crucial meeting with the notions that a player could not only run with the ball in his hands if he made a ‘fair catch’ – that is, caught a ball last played by the opposition – but that he could be charged, held, tripped or hacked (kicked on the shins) or have the ball wrestled from his grasp. As contact sports go, that would make rugby look like chess.
Fortunately, there were protests, notably from representatives from Cambridge University and the enlightened city of Sheffield, the latter declaring Morley’s ideas to be ‘against the spirit of football and more suggestive of wrestling.’ Morley was persuaded and, ever since, football has been the game for all shapes, sizes and ages of people, certainly more so than rugby with its requirements for strength and aggression.
Even in terms of disposition, football is more inclusive. Those, such as myself, who lack physical courage can enjoy it to a degree. And so it has become the world’s most popular sporting activity, challenged only by the broad church of athletics, almost all of whose disciplines are – and I don’t think this is pure coincidence – virtually non-contact sports. If people want to fight, they can take up boxing or wrestling – or just fight.
It is against this background that I view the issue of physical contact in football. I think there is too much of it in the professional game, and not just the mauling at set-pieces either; the wrestling of which the Sheffield worthies warned is present, at least in mild and sneaky versions, more or less every time opponents chase a ball and commentators murmur things like ‘he just did enough to put him off’ or ‘he eased him off the ball’ or (my greatest hate) ‘no foul there – he was just too strong for him.’
Don’t get me wrong. I love to see a good, clean tackle because, when that happens, any contact is incidental. I love every kind of defensive skill and believe that attack is all the more thrilling for being difficult. But I don’t want a game in which people are ‘just too strong’ for others and I wish every referee agreed because I feel that, in time, the inclusiveness of the game, the welcome it offers to little men such as Lionel Messi, will be affected.
The battle might have been won in 1863, but the war is still being fought and you can tell because, when someone tells you that the game’s going soft, they don’t realise it’s they, and not you, who are trying to change it.