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Spreading Football Via The British Army

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


After forming successful teams in the 1870s, the British Army took football on their postings throughout the world and introduced the game to the Far East and Africa. David Goldblatt analyses how the army and football became tools of resistance rather than colonial control.

The early history of football and the British Army have been closely connected, ever since the army was used to break up an unruly game of village football between the Derbyshire parishes of All Saint's and St Peters on Shrovetide Tuesday in 1846. Over the next 20 years, public schools and elite universities transformed football from a chaotic rural pastime into the game we know. A significant number of the British officer class passed through these institutions and got a taste for the game.
So great was their devotion to football that the Royal Engineers - an army team and regiment based in Kent - won the FA Cup once, in 1875, and were losing finalists three times (in 1872, 1874 and 1878). These teams were exclusively made up of officers, but football soon became the preserve of enlisted men and a central element in the army's physical training programmes.
The army's biggest impact to English football has been overseas. In the years when football first emerged, the British Army was stationed on every continent and where the army went, so did football.
In the Far East in the 1890s, regimental clubs played first against British civilians and later local clubs in the colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong. In Africa, army teams played in the first organised competitions in Cairo and in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The British army was instrumental in taking football to South Africa; not amongst the white settler communities who had brought football with them, but amongst Africans who had been excluded from the game. During the Boer War (1899-1902) the British Army was forced to rely on African baggage carriers: inevitably, due to their close daily contact with the army, the Africans took to football.
The biggest overseas posting was India and especially its then-capital Calcutta. A football tournament between regiments stationed in the city was set up and the Duran Cup, first won by the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1888 is the third oldest football tournament in the world. It wasn't long before the local Bengalis had adopted the game, forming clubs like Shovazabar and Mohun Bagan in the 1890s. The city's newspapers greeted Mohan Bagan's 1911 Cup victory over the East York's regiment as an act of political liberation that destroyed the racist stereotypes of the raj. Nayak newspaper wrote: "It fills every Indian's heart with joy and pride to know that rice-eating, malaria-ridden barefooted Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating Herculean, booted John Bull in the peculiarly English sport."
Unwittingly, both the army and football had become tools of resistance rather than colonial control. And some remnants of the army's involvement remain: Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stand called the Spion Kop is named after a fierce battle fought in January 1900 by the British Army against the Boers at Spion Kop (meaning, 'the spy hill') in South Africa.


David Goldblatt, February 2004


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