Players gathered in Battersea Park, London from all over the world — from Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Yemen, Brighton and Bradford — to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first official game played there under the new Football Association rules. Back in 1864, the exhibition match boasted teams consisting of the best football players there were. This time around, the expectations of a great game were no less lofty.
The players divided into two teams of 11, three less per side than in the original game, but this was absolutely fine since the captains agreed to the number. On one side, the Brazilian contingent led by Fernando Godoy, allied with the members of New Model Army, looked sharp and promised much. On the other, the German contingent led by Andrew Aris, along with sundry others including Phil Wake — a veteran of three previous kick-offs — had the greater experience. Who would prevail?
The coin was tossed, Fernando chose heads but it landed tails. Andrew chose to play from the half his team was already in and so Fernando was obliged to kick off. The whistle blew and mayhem ensued. In 1864, there was no referee because no-one imagined that gentlemen could not agree a solution when disputes occurred. The 1863 rules, however, make no mention of a referee, so it wasn’t technically an infringement for me to help proceedings along against a backdrop of shouts from crowd and players alike of “Oi! Ref! Get a new monocle!”
The tendency to pass the ball forward to a team-mate — indeed the ungentlemanly tendency to pass at all, an unsavoury habit ingrained through years of playing the modern game — seemed the most common infringement, though my whistles were largely ignored. Yet, as the game progressed, the players began policing themselves and gentle reminders to team-mates to pass backwards proved more effective than my own protestations.
Both teams adopted a long-ball game, a tactic popular on these shores to this very day — even the highest levels. It worked better for Fernando’s team who had the benefit of two young ringers named João Pedro and Callum running rings round Andrew’s relative veterans. Indeed, so successful a tactic was it that it led to the first goal, scored by Joao with a lofted shot that passed between the posts about 5 metres over the new-fangled — and for this game meaningless — “crossbar”.
Much spectator hilarity derived from the outside-the-touchline scuffles and shambolic throw-ins guaranteed by Rule 5:
“When the ball is in touch, the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground in a direction at right angles with the boundary line, and the ball shall not be in play until it has touched the ground.”
This amusing yet perilous clause — along with its twin that deals with the goal line — were later dropped from the rulebook, presumably at the request of the sport’s less hardy onlookers, faced as they were at any given moment by the prospect of serious injury.
Although goalkeepers were not introduced until 1870, Justin Sullivan performed two miracle headers in front of goal to deny Andrew’s team the goal they sought. Calling “mark” might have been tactically better, since a free kick would have been awarded from the point at which the ball was caught, but Justin’s headers were far more deserving of a slow-motion action replay. Whatever that is.
Throughout the game, both Fernando and Andrew made powerful dribbling incursions into opposition territory that were a constant threat. But it was one of Andrew’s surging runs combined with Phil’s combover, which seemed to behave like a 12th player, that caused so much consternation and pressure that it eventually led to an equaliser.
After changing ends, as of course one does after each goal, play resumed with renewed vigour from both sides. Further goals were scored by Mike Dean for the Brazil/NMA alliance and Andrew (again) for the Spirit of Football veterans as the commemorative game ended a 2–2 draw.
After the game everyone, players and spectators alike, crowded round to sign The Ball, though everyone had to prove they had kicked or headed it before they signed. Orderly and civilised queues formed in gentlemanly fashion as the first of what will without doubt be many thousands of signatures were inscribed on The Ball.
A final word about the pitch which the groundsmen prepared so beautifully for the game: 150 years after the first official game played under the 1863 rules, a match using those rules finally took place on astroturf.
Written by Christian Wach on Thursday, January 16th, 2014