Dark shirts v. Light shirts
It’s 10 o’clock on Sunday morning in Battersea Park. People wearing a motley assortment of Victorian costumes can be seen making their way to a football pitch at its western end. Moustaches and pipes at the ready, the players and spectators have gathered to re-enact a game that lies at the very heart of football — a game that also lies largely forgotten.
This pitch is more than just any old pitch — it is the place where the modern game was born. Football itself (of course) predates the game that took place there on 9th January 1864, but the players who took part in that game were playing by the rules which, in an unbroken run lasting 146 years, have become those of the modern game.
The ball to be used in the game is also more than just any old ball — it is The Ball and this game marks the beginning of its epic journey to the ultimate spectacle of the modern game: the football World Cup in South Africa. It has been hand-made for the journey in Kenya (through which it will pass and quite literally “meet its maker”) by Alive & Kicking, whose director Will Prochaska brings it on to the pitch to be presented to the Spirit of Football team. The last stitch has been saved for this moment, and trustee James Flecker ceremonially snips the last thread that makes it ready for action.
And so, graced with the occasional appearance of a weak winter sun, the players — young and old — run purposefully and comically out onto the pitch. The 1863 rules are read out for their benefit, greeted by looks of puzzlement from the teams — and no reassuring show of authority from the referee. It looks like it’s only experience that will lead to an understanding of the game as it was played.
A coin is thrown in the air, the toss is won by the darks, and so the kick-off must be taken by the lights. It is a forward kick, towards a bewildered darks — wondering no doubt what on earth happens now. Initial reactions seem to be to try and play to the rules, but with tactics more suited to the modern game — the forward pass is the first rule that has to be unlearned. The fact that everyone in advance of the ball is offside is the first rule to be strictly observed.
Pipes are accidentally knocked flying and moustaches are a source of distraction, but the players respect the rules (so contentious at the time) that no tripping or hacking be allowed. A young lad, Alex “Fabregas” Cameron, becomes a source of considerable trouble for the darks defense and his link up play with captain Andrew Aris leads to the first goal for lights.
The Boy Noble, sensing a missed opportunity, is the first to catch the ball and call “mark” and the darks have to retreat as a “free” kick is granted. More goals follow for the lights as they adapt to the rules more quickly and darks captain Phil Wake tries to rally them by adopting a scrummage formation to gain ground in open play.
Sir Tom “Tommy” Thomas begins to realise that there is great advantage in chasing the ball even once it has left the field of play, since it is the first player to the ball that takes the throw in. Behind the goal line, it is even more important, the outcome being either a goal kick for the defenders or a free kick at goal for the attackers.
The unfamiliarity of the rules, which levelled the playing field for all the players, led to the sweetest outcome of the game: a cameraderie and a shared delight in rediscovering the roots of the game which they love.
“The referee needs a monocle!” one player cried, but in the end all players and spectators left with smiles.
Written by Christian Wach on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010