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Jan 17, 2013

Doing it by the book

In 1863, a group of individuals sat down at the Freemasons' Tavern, London, with the intention of agreeing a set of rules to bring some structure to the game of football.

The pastime, despite its popularity over several centuries, had been held back by its very particular regional flavours. For example, some public schools, most notably the Rugby School, saw handling as an integral part of the sport. Others considered 'hacking' - the kicking of opposition players in the shins - to be legitimate and moreover essential part of a good game.

Efforts had been made to rectify the problem. The Cambridge Rules, first set down in 1848 and revised several times, were drawn up due to conflicts that arose when members of the various schools came together at Cambridge University. The rules had many similarities with the modern game - although the 'fair catch', allowing players to handle the ball, was deemed acceptable - and they were found to work, according to their author, "very satisfactorily". However, the rules were not disseminated, or adopted, sufficiently. In 1858, the newly founded Sheffield FC created the Sheffield Rules (which forbade any form of catching after a revision) and they would come to be used widely throughout the North of England.

Elsewhere, though, variations persisted. So it was that London-based solicitor Ebenezer Cobb Morley, frustrated that the players at his Barnes FC club argued "feverishly" over the rules, wrote a letter to the Bell's Life newspaper suggesting football should learn from cricket, which had a clear set of rules governed by Marylebone Cricket Club.

A meeting was arranged on a Monday evening between 12 clubs at the Freemasons' Tavern, a storied location that had earlier in the century witnessed the birth of the Royal Astronomical Society and the first World Anti-Slavery Convention. It would take several meetings before a set of rules could be established, and the eventual agreement owed an acknowledged debt to the rules decreed at Cambridge University and Sheffield FC, but that first meeting ended with the foundation of the Football Association.

"I'm wondering if I can think of another night in a tavern that had such great consequences," Hugh Robertson, the UK Minister for Sport, said on Wednesday.

Robertson was speaking at the Grand Connaught Rooms, on the site of the old Freemasons' Tavern, as the FA began the celebrations for its 150 years of existence. Others to appear during the event included great stars of the past like Lothar Matthaus, Alan Shearer, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Michael Owen and Sir Trevor Brooking, but the most noteworthy stage appearance of the day came in the shape of the Laws of the Game, the original document as written on behalf of Ebenezer Cobb Morley for publication in Bell's Life in December 1863. The book, described as the "DNA of football", is insured for £1 million.

Its contents were controversial. It allowed for the fair catch, but among its 13 laws were the prohibition of hacking or running with the ball in hand. Sheffield FC's William Chesterman had stated during the discussions that hacking and running with the ball were "directly opposed to football", but use of hands was integral for many who played the game, while many saw violence as the natural way of things (the laws' final line stipulated: "No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta-percha on the soles or heels of his boots").

A disenchanted Francis Maule Campbell, who had been attending the meetings on behalf of Blackheath FC, argued that "hacking is the true football" and withdrew his club from the Association, and in 1871 Blackheath became founder members of the Rugby Football Union. Football and rugby thus went their separate ways.

"They changed the world by producing the first Laws of the Game," David Bernstein, the current FA chairman, said as he stood beside "their original handwritten minute book" at the Grand Connaught Rooms. "The modern game of football was born that day, and its subsequent journey across continents and cultures has been extraordinary." It took time, though, for the FA to impose its laws - Blackheath, for one, continued to play under their own rules beyond 1863 - but the body began to exert its influence with the introduction of the world's first national football competition.

In 1871, after the rules had been changed to restrict catching to goalkeepers, FA secretary Charles Alcock wrote to the Sportsman newspaper saying he felt it "desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the Association for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete".

Despite fears that such serious competition could be unhealthy for the sport - notions that it would provoke rancour have proved well founded over the past 150 years - the plans were adopted. The first FA Cup final attracted 2,000 spectators, and along with the introduction of international encounters against Scotland - also at Alcock's prompting - The FA and its laws began to gain traction.

Football would grow and grow in the years that followed and, as it expanded around the globe, became a universal joy for the masses.

"Films, plays, books, opera's not for everyone. Football really is. That is the ultimate for me. Football is cultural. Football is our culture," England manager Roy Hodgson told journalists in the aftermath of the 150th anniversary event. "I'm pleased that today so many people have had the chance to make clear that the FA does mean something."

The FA, alongside its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts and FIFA, continues to make changes to the Laws of the Game through International Football Association Board, which was founded in 1886. Since that time, there have been numerous significant alterations, including the introduction of penalty kicks, substitutes, red and yellow cards, and the back-pass rule.

While it is now a truly global game, it is clear the FA still has a significant role to play.

"When you talk to leading people in the international community, presidents of other countries, they treat this country with great respect, they really do," Bernstein, who will leave his role in mid-July, told journalists. "They talk about The FA, which makes us very proud."

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