Making the game beautiful: Murder, manslaughter and Marco Asensio

Marco Asensio has set Madrid alight with his performances for Real this season.
Marco Asensio has set Madrid alight with his performances for Real this season.


Football is a man’s game, apparently. Aside from the burgeoning women’s version that continues to gather steam globally, there’s actually compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. Take Marco Asensio, the genuinely gifted Real Madrid starlet who recently missed a Champions League game after an injury sustained shaving his legs. “He has a spot on his leg which means he cannot lift his sock,” confirmed coach Zinedine Zidane. It’s the sort of excuse that would leave Roy Keane reaching for a paper bag, sentences involving the words “up your bollocks” or his favourite film, The Battle of Santiago.

In 2017, the sport’s elite athletes are simultaneously pampered, mollycoddled and mothered. How did we get here? Because the British predecessor of modern day football, beyond its roots in the Far East, truly was a man’s game. We’ve all despaired at a lack of urgency or ingenuity from our beloved team as they vainly hunt an equaliser. In medieval times, the long ball was far from a last resort for the players of ultra-violent “mob football”. According to an ancient handbook, “any means could be employed to get the ball to its target with the exception of murder and manslaughter,” explain FIFA.

This led to some disfiguring, life-changing injuries rather more serious than a twisted man bun. In 1321, Pope John XXII agreed a dispensation to William de Spalding of Shouldham, following a grisly on-field incident: “During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days.” Clearly, some rules where required. Enter the Football Association and its founder Ebenezer Cobb Morley.

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The first body of its kind worldwide met at a tavern in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields in December, 1863 to establish the laws of the game. The handwritten text outlined 13 basic parameters which remain, by and large, unchanged, although there has been considerable evolution. On the one hand, these laws appear primitive: “No player shall wear projecting nails, iron plates…on the soles or heels of his boots.” Equally, they predate issues that are divisive even now: “Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary.” Either way, it was at this point that modern football was born.

Approximately 25 years later, in September 1888, the Football League was officially established, consisting of the following teams: Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. By this point, football was beginning to go global and Kjobenhavn Boldklub, a Danish team founded in 1876, are said to have become the first European club outside Great Britain. The invention of the football net and advances in grass cutting technology pushed the sport further forward, although it was not without its eccentricities as the century drew to a close, highlighted by 1894’s bizarre game of three halves.

Across the 20th century, football’s potency to deliver joy and pain, divide and rule, grew exponentially, the players and pound signs accelerating in unison. Just consider the sport’s impact on Britain, home of “the beautiful game”’s oldest Western participants. Apocryphally, it delivered peace across No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914 during World War One. In the unlikely event you choose to believe Michel Platini, The Farm or Sainsbury’s, who marked the 100-year anniversary with a typically sycophantic TV commercial, it’s also worth considering that the “match” between warring nations saw Germany beat England 3-2. Penalties were not required, thankfully.

The construction of Wembley Stadium, traditionally trumpeted as the cathedral of world football but more recently viewed as an ugly, industrial concrete and steel manifestation of the “Spursy” condition, has provided a dramatic backdrop for our complex love affair with 22 men. It was here that 250,000 people somehow squeezed down Wembley Way in 1923 to watch perhaps the most famous FA Cup final of all-time, although survivors confirm that, even then, the Club Wembley seats were half empty. It was also the scene of a hugely significant, in both sporting and political senses, match between the English national team and Hungary in 1953. 

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Trying to pretend their humiliation at the hands of the USA at 1950’s World Cup finals had never happened, confidence among the home side was back. Buoyed by the Queen’s coronation and riding a wide of nationalism best imagined by Nigel Farage driving his Union Jack mini with a “BREXIT” number plate down to the Red Lion in Thanet, victory seemed assured. “‘Look at that fat little chap,’ one of the English players is said to have commented just before kick-off. Fifty-seven seconds later the ball was in the back of the English net, and after only 28 minutes Hungary were ahead 4-1,” reports the BBC.

Inspired by their majestic, rotund captain Ferenc Puskas, Hungary won 6-3. England centre-half Syd Owen later said it “was like playing people from outer space”. Hungary’s coach, Gusztav Sebes, who was also a member of the government, was pointed in his views about the match and its international ramifications. “The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.” Everything was changing, as England’s famous and perhaps never to be repeated World Cup win in 1966 illustrated in a seismic shift from black and white to colour. Now much more than a man’s game, football is the world’s game, in every beautiful incarnation, idiosyncrasy and intoxicating second


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