As I wrote here, I got David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer to accompany the World Cup, and I’m finding it riveting; it’s almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combining sporting and social history. Surprisingly (to me), it starts with Chinese cuju and continues with the ball game both popular and culturally central in ancient Mexico and Central America, immortalized in the Popol Vuh (in which the sun and moon are the bodies of the hero twins who lost a game of ball to the gods), but neither are ancestral to the modern game, and he soon turns to the “large-scale and often riotous” ball games of the Celtic world which probably gave rise to the medieval English pastime so often, and fruitlessly, banned by the authorities. Having survived royal prohibition, it nearly succumbed to modernity, and in 1801 Joseph Strutt could write, “The game was formerly much in vogue among the common people, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and is but little practiced.”
But football, as we know, survived. It did so because it was preserved and nurtured in institutions that were beyond the cultural reach of Methodists, industrialists and artisans. Britain’s public schools were the ludic zoos of the age. They provided refuge for the wild and endangered games of rural Georgian Britain where they were bred and developed before being released into the new sporting and social ecology of industrial Victorian Britain.
If you find that as delightful as I do, you may want to read the book. At any rate, in the chapter on the first expansion of the game to the wider world around the turn of the twentieth century, I found a passage of clear LH relevance:
The English language itself was considered the mark of modernity and an essential device for excluding any would-be players from the lower classes. In its inaugural statutes the early Parisian club White Rovers stated, ‘Football being an essentially English game, all players must use the English language exclusively when playing together.’ This homage to the power of English remains in the Anglicized club names of the Netherlands, like Go Ahead Eagles and Be Quick Denver, and of Italy, where it is AC Milan not Milano, and Genoa not Genova. In Switzerland Grasshoppers and Young Boys remain among the leading clubs, while in Latin America Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Lawn Tennis, Corinthians and The Strongest still play in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia respectively.
He goes on to talk about “Dr James Spensley, the leading force and player at Genoa Cricket,” who “was described in his obituary as having ‘widespread interest[s] in philosophical studies, Greek language, Egyptian Papyrus, football, boxing and popular university. He even initiated an evening school in Genoa.’” Talk about your Renaissance man!
Addendum. And now I know why the Italians call it calcio; on p. 154 Goldblatt, writing about the rise of Italian nationalism, says:
This flicker of Italian nationalism in football was inflamed even further when in 1908 representatives of the gymnastic movement acquired a majority on the Italian Football Federation’s governing council. The cabal immediately began to agitate over the power and role of foreigners in Italian football, and Milan, Genoa and Torino — all of whom insisted on fielding foreigners — were excluded from that year’s national competition. In a strained compromise, indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football: a symbolic victory based on an invented history.