- The Shared Origins of Football, Rugby, and Soccer by Christopher Rowley
In The Shared Origins of Football, Rugby, and Soccer, Christopher Rowley gives readers a whirlwind tour of the deep historical origins of “football.” The scope is dizzying: Rowley [End Page 245] ranges from ancient China and Mesoamerica to the 2022 FIFA World Cup scheduled for Qatar. The book shows how games such as episkyros in ancient Greece and harpastum in the Roman Empire were eventually transformed into something called “footeballe” by the 1400s (83).
Rowley is “best known as a science fiction and fantasy” writer (247). He warns that his book is “not an academic work” yet maintains that his “speculations and conclusions” give readers a greater “understanding of where his or her favorite . . . codes of football came from” (x–xi). It is hard to argue with this assessment. Rowley shows how seven football codes (American, Australian, Canadian, Gaelic, rugby league, rugby union, and association) developed. He includes rules for various precursor games in lists that may have served readers better in an appendix. The author includes valuable historical context, although in places the volume reads like a breezy Western civilization textbook. At other times, he ventures into the realm of conjecture and counterfactual speculation.
An interesting takeaway from this book is the parallel history of various football codes. Most were codified between the 1850s and 1880s, and some gained global popularity in the three decades stretching from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I. In other words, at a time of national consolidation (1850s–70s) and imperialism (1880s–1910s), something similar happened to kicking and running games.
Among the most enjoyable aspects of this book are passages wherein the author discusses atavistic “fossil games.” For instance, Rowley entertainingly recounts his encounter with the Ashbourne Game, a rough-and-tumble Derbyshire contest in which players struggle to move a ball to one of two old mill sites on a distant brook. Rowley also weaves into his narrative late-1800s’ debates over professionalism, as well as the centuries-long evolution of the ball itself—from carefully heated and shaped animal bladder to mass-produced, leather-encased rubber.
The most frustrating aspects of this volume are the index and bibliography. The index is useless. Page numbers appear to have been derived from a manuscript with different pagination. By the later chapters, page numbers in the index are off by fifteen pages. Some important names appearing in the text—including Walter Camp (195–198, 205)—do not have entries. (Knute Rockne, whose name is misspelled in the chapter on American football, is also not included in the index.) The bibliography includes many books on the history of the British Isles and English sports. Yet many authoritative historians of soccer or American football—including David Goldblatt, Barbara J. Keys, Ronald A. Smith, and David Wangerin—are absent.
This book, written in an accessible style, will be welcomed on the shelves of public and school libraries. It shows general readers that the various games called “football” do have a fascinating, intertwined history. Its scholarly shortcomings, though, limit its utility. [End Page 246]