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Transatlantic Connections: Britain, America & Football

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.


Football was slow to become popular in the USA despite the efforts of British influence from as far back as the 17th century. But over time, and with the help of expatriates from Britain, the game took on baseball and basketball and found its own place in the nation's affections. Ben Lyttleton reports.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his account of the 20th century, War and Peace in the 20th Century, that in cultural terms, "it has been an American era, but for one area: sport". One sport, football, has become the leading game in every continent but has been slow to conquer the USA - the reason, though, has nothing to do with a lack of early football experiences.
The Pilgrims of the 17th century record the existence of a Native American game called 'Pasukkquakkohowog' which translates as: 'They gather to play football'. The game was played using an inflated bladder between two large teams on a narrow pitch up to one mile long. It was similar to the game of folk football played amongst the British colonists and their descendants in the towns of New England and Virginia, but the Boston authorities issued a 1657 rule banning it from town centres.
In the 19th century, America's football inheritance was helped by an elite football culture, which was again drawn from Britain. The country's leading universities and colleges replicated the sports culture of British public schools. The games had loose and changing rules and combined the use of hands and kicking, but proved thrilling enough to inspire a Harvard student in 1827 to compose a humorous epic poem called 'The Battle of the Delta', which is the first written record of football in American universities.
It was towards the end of this century when football's development began to suffer in America. The English FA created a set of shared rules from the mix of school games in 1863 but they could not systematically transfer them to the USA, because a similar amalgamation of rules had recently led to the creation of American football.
Those rules were based on the 'Boston game' codified between 1862 and 1865 by the large and popular Boston club for elite secondary school and Harvard alumni, Oneida FC. The university clung to the rules over the next decade while other elite colleges played a variety of games. Harvard's pre-eminent position and authority saw the Boston rules enshrined as the college football game by the mid-1870s. The game was so popular that by 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt was personally involved in the debate over the game's violence. He also used football metaphors in his speeches, saying: "Don't flinch, don't foul and hit the line hard."
So when the English version of football and its rules arrived - mainly through a new wave of working-class emigration from Britain - the game was effectively excluded from elite universities, which were central to US sports culture. Football faced a commercial market already filling up with baseball, basketball and American football. The game did find strongholds in the working-class communities of industrial New England (like Fall River, Massachusetts) and the European migrant communities of the big cities - but by 1900, football was destined for a minor role in US sports culture in the early part of the 20th century. That changed when Pele and George Best joined the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and now the USA are among the world's top-ten FIFA-ranked nations. The debt they owe to Britain dates back over hundreds of years.



Ben Lyttleton, February 2004

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