The mother of modern sport

“We [the Coca Cola Championship] are the fourth best supported division in  Europe  with  nearly  10  million  fans  last  season,   after  the Premiership  [12.88 million],  Bundesliga [11.57 million] and  La  Liga [10.92].  We are ahead of Seria A.”   Lord Mahwinny,  Chairman  of  the Football League – Daily Telegraph 28 7 2005.

 The English have  a most tremendous sporting culture.  By that I do not mean that England is always winning everything at the national level  – although  they  do far better than is generally realised –  but  rather that the interest in sport is exceptionally deep and wide. As the quote from Mahwinny shows,  not only is the top division of English  football (the Premiership)  the most watched in Europe,  the second   division (the  Coca Cola Championship) attracts  more spectators than   all  but two of the top divisions  in Europe,  beating even the top division  of that supposed bastion of football Italy.  

The  colossal   support   for  football in  England  is  all  the  more extraordinary  because the country has so many other  sports  seriously competing  for  spectators,   arguably more  than   any  other  country because  England  competes at a serious level in almost all  the  major international   sports  –  gymnastics  and  alpine  sports   are  the exceptions.  This all round sporting participation resulted in  England in the early 1990s coming within touching distance of becoming    world champions in football,  rugby and cricket. In 1990 England  lost in the semi-finals  on  penalties   to Germany in the football World  Cup;  in 1991 they lost the final of the Rugby World Cup and in 1992  they  lost in  the  final  the  Cricket World Cup.  No  other  country,  not  even Australia, could have shown as strongly in all three sports. 

The  intense English interest in sport at club level is carried through to  the national sides.   England’s rugby,  cricket and football  teams have  immense  support wherever they go,  whether it be  the  amazingly loyal   England  football  supporters or  cricket’s   Barmy  Army,  the special quality of their support is  recognised by foreigners:  “German fans  want to be like the English fans.  They want to be 100  per  cent for  their team,  for their land.” (German supporter at World Cup  2006 Daily Telegraph 6 7 2006) 

This wonderful English  attachment to  sport  is not so strange when it is  remembered  that  most important international sports  were  either created by the English or the English  had a large hand in establishing them as international sports.   In addition,  other important  sports are  plausibly derived from English games,  most notably  American  and Astralian  Rules  football from rugby,   baseball  from  rounders  and asketball  from netball.  In fact,  all the major team games in  their modern forms  originated in Anglo-Saxon countries:  cricket,  football, rugby  union,  rugby  league,  American  football,   Australian  rules, baseball,  basketball,  ice hockey,  hockey.  

Even the modern  Olympic games  were  inspired  by the Englishman   Dr  William  Penny  Brookes’ “Olympic Games” at Much Wenlock in Shropshire which he founded in 1850.  A visit to the Wenlock gave the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin,  his idea for reviving the Olympic Games  in Athens.  Brookes was a tireless advocate of such a revival  himself and only  died in 1894 shortly before  the first modern Olympic  games  was held  in  1896.   On  the 100th anniversary  of  his  death,  the  then president  of  the  International  Olympic  Committee,   Juan   Antonio Samaranch   laid a wreath on Brookes’  grave with the words “I come  to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brooks, who really was the founder of  the modern Olympic games.” (Bridgnorth Information).    It would not be too much  of  an  exaggeration  to say that  the  English  invented  modern spectator sport.

Of  the  games directly created,   to the one game which  deserves  the title of a world sport – football – the English may add  cricket, rugby (both codes),  snooker, hockey, lawn tennis, badminton,  squash,  table tennis   and  snooker,  Those who  yawn  at the likes of hockey,  table tennis  and squash should reflect on the fact  that sports vary greatly  in   popularity  from  country  to  country.   Hockey  is  the   Indian Subcontinent’s second game:  squash,  badminton and table tennis are to the  fore  throughout  Asia,   while  snooker  is  rapidly  growing  in popularity in the Far East. 

The organisation of sport 

The difference between sports  before the modern era  and those  in the modern  era   is  that the pre-modern sports   were  not  organised  or standardised. In  pre-modern times sports lacked both a standard set of rules  and  governing bodies to enforce the common rules.  The  English changed all that and they began the process  very early,  most  notably in  cricket where a governing body, the MCC,  and a generally  accepted set  of  rules (known as laws) were established before the end  of  the 18th  century.    Some  of major sports  where England  had  the  first national association and  established the first generally accepted  set of  rules are: 

Association  Football   –  Football Association  formed  in   1863. The  FA established the laws of the game

Cricket – First published Laws 1744, MCC formed 1787

Hockey  –  1883  standard set of rules  published  by  Wimbledon  Club,

Hockey Association founded 1886 

Lawn  Tennis – Wimbledon championships established 1877 with first  set

of rules resembling the game as it is now 

Rugby Union – 1871 The Rugby Union formed and the  first laws published

 The  dominance  of  England as a creator and  organiser  of  sports  is further illustrated by  the existence of truly iconic sporting  venues such as Lords (cricket),  Wembley (football),  Twickenham (Rugby Union) and Wimbledon (tennis),  all of which have a resonance that   stretches far beyond  England. 

International  Sport

Anyone who wonders why the four home nations  (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland),  are allowed to play as separate teams  in major sports  such  as  football  and   rugby   even  though  they  are   not independent  countries need wonder no longer.  The answer is  that  the four home nations were the four original international players in these sports.   

The  Rugby Union arranged the first international rugby  match  between England  and Scotland in 1871, while the  first football  international between England and Scotland kicked off in  1872. 

Further afield  cricket led the way.   The first international  cricket tour  was   in  1859 when a team of Englishmen  toured  North  America. Further tours took place to Australia in the 1860s and 1870s.  What was later  recognised  as the first cricket Test match was  played  between England an Australia in Australia 1877. The first Test match in England was played between England and Australia in 1880 at the Oval.

Of  course it was not only formal efforts which spread English  sports. Everywhere  the  English went they took their games with them.  In  the time  of  the  Empire  and  Britain’s  dominance  as  an  economic  and political power this meant almost the entire world.  Most of the  world was eager to adopt at  least some English sports.  Indeed,  of the many cultural  things  England have exported,  sports  have a good claim  to be the most eagerly received. 

The games which England invented did not need to be forced upon others. The opposite was often the case.  Within the   Empire  complaints  were  frequently  made  by  the   native populations that they were excluded from participation in games such as football and cricket.

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