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Battersea to Johannesburg: How Soccer took over the world

By James Montague, CNN
  • Charity Spirit of Soccer stage a re-enactment of first ever football match in London, in 1864
  • From Battersea they will kick a football all the way to South Africa
  • From the FA's original 13 rules, football spread around the world in the matter of a few decades
  • FIFA World Cup
  • South Africa
  • FA Cup
  • Africa

London, England (CNN) -- The bizarre scene was enough to make dog-walkers stop and stare, as a gaggle of mustached men, dressed in 19th century waistcoats and ankle-length shorts, faced each other on a pitch at London's Battersea Park.

A referee, smoking a shag-filled pipe, read out the rules for the re-enactment of one of history's most significant moments: the first ever official football match, which took place at Battersea Park on January 9th, 1864 between the "Darks" and the "Lights."

The recreation was organized by Spirit of Football, a charity which aims to kick a ball from the birthplace of the modern game, overland via Europe and Africa, to Soccer City, Johannesburg, for the start of the World Cup.

"Most news stories that come out of Africa are negative. Famine, war, death. You see all this negative stuff and this trip is about showing all the positive stories about Africa through football," explained Andrew Aris, director of Spirit of Football and a former under 20s New Zealand international who once played opposite the likes of Australian internationals Lucas Neil and Harry Kewell.

As Africa's first World Cup approaches, Aris hope is his specially-commissioned African-made ball can become football's equivalent of the Olympic torch and highlight the true global nature of game.

But just as impressive as football's global reach -- according to FIFA three quarters of a billion people watched the 2006 final between France and Italy -- is the story of how a small and seemingly obscure game played in a handful of British private schools went from a park in south London to take over the world.

Most news stories that come out of Africa are negative. Famine, war, death...This trip is about showing all the positive stories about Africa through football
--Spirit of Soccer's Andrew Aris

"You have a folk game of football that comes from the Middle Ages - 1307 is the earliest reference to a game called football," explained Richard Sanders, author of "Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football."

"Modern football and rugby are descended from that. The traditional folk game needed a uniform set of rules and that happens in the English cities of London and Sheffield."

It was a fraught process, with upper-class British schools all playing different rules, some choosing to kick the ball, others preferring to pick it up. When 17 clubs met in a smoke-filled pub in London to codify the game, furious discussions followed.

Four teams pulled out when the Football Association (FA) refused to allow the kicking of players or to include the rules of a game played in the English town of Rugby, the embryonic form of rugby union, itself a precursor to American football.

But when agreement was reached on the FA Rules of 1863, it paved the way for the first official match: an FA President's team versus an FA Secretary's team, which the FA President's team won 2-0.

Scorer of both goals was Charles William Alcock, the man who both organized and played in the first international football match, between England and Scotland in 1872, and the first FA Cup final five years later.

Although it became quite clear that, when CNN joined the match before kick-off, the 1863 rules bore little relation to the modern game.

The forward pass, like in rugby, was outlawed; players were still allowed to catch the ball to gain a free kick and the crossbar hadn't been invented yet. But a few tweaks to the rules set football's potential free.

"When Queens Park, a team from Glasgow, began to pass the ball to each other, it started a tactical revolution," explained Sanders. "School boys from wealthy schools just charged through each other. Working class players couldn't compete physically because they were smaller, because of a poorer diet. From then on you could be good at football without being a great big strong bloke."

From there Association football (abbreviated to "soccer" in many regions) spread across the world at an astonishing pace, especially amongst the poor of Europe and South America.

The reach of the British Empire has often been cited as the chief reason for the game's ubiquity but, for Sanders, it was all down to the beautiful game's sheer simplicity.

"The spread of football was a reflection of British power and influence," he said. "But if you look at where the game took hold, Europe and South America were not colonial territories, really. Where there was direct rule in Australia, India and Canada, not to mention the USA, they didn't play it. It spread because there were only 13 rules. All you needed to play was some flat ground and a ball."

Back in Battersea, the game degenerated into an attritional affair, colored by 19th century shoulder barges, perfectly legal under the original rules. But then Aris, showing his international class, picked up the ball and skipped around the rest of the players before scoring from the half way line.

It was the only moment of footballing class in a thumping 4-1 victory for the 'Lights'. A New Zealander, based in Germany, teaching the British a lesson or two about football: Charles William Alcock would have most definitely approved.