“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.
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.