When Did Football Start?

football in the middle ages

Updated: Apr 29, 2020 8:52 am

Most people, when asked the question “when did football start?” might shrug their shoulders and reply sometime in the nineteenth century in England.  It’s like established games like Online Spanish 21, which has only been going since the internet in its online incarnation, obviously, but whose roots only go back to 1995 – amazing!).  Many people get this type of question wrong – a sport has usually either been around a lot longer than people think – or not long at all!

It turns out that this is a more complicated question than you might imagine – or perhaps ambiguous is the correct word.  1863 would be one answer that many would give in a pub quiz – because that was the year that the English Football Association (the FA as we know it) was established but folk football goes back much further than that – hundreds of years in fact.  And bizarrely, did you know that for many years it was outlawed – banned, forbidden?!

It was mostly to do with the way it was played.  If we call it “folk football” to separate it from the FA, then it was quite a chaotic affair.  If you imagine a football riot at a modern-day stadium you would only really be starting to imagine how riotous the event was back in the 14th century.  Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that life was shorter and way more brutal than it is today, the sport as it began was not much more than a free-for-all.

There were no holes barred and if you imagine a scene out of Mad Max but add a ball, you would probably be closer to how it was played then compared to today!  Violence was frequently used between opposing teams and as for handling the ball to move it forward towards the opposing team’s goal, sure, why not?  We really don’t know a great deal about the ‘sport’ at this time.  However- and this is quite amusing really – most historical documents from the 14th to the 18th centuries that mention football do not describe how it is played, rather they are legal documents describing attempts to ban it!

However, although at times it was completely forbidden, the love of the game was already strong in the hearts of Brits throughout the land.  Forbidden it may have been: suppressed, never.

1410 was not a good year for football.  Sitting on the throne was one of the Henrys – the fourth to be exact.  He had banned football in London the previous year, especially the organizing of matches and charging money for the spectacle.  So, the next year he extended the ban throughout the realm – charging locals up to twenty shillings (not quite a pound these days but a heft fine back then) if they dared to allow football matches in their towns.

So, there you have it.  Although many would say that 1863 is the pivotal year for football as it saw the birth of the FA, the first evidence that it was being played throughout the country was, in fact, in 1410.  That’s a difference of four hundred and fifty-three years!

I don’t know about you but next time I am asked when football started, I am going to give 1410 as my answer!


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