World Cup 2014: What if... football hadn't been invented?

Baseball could have become the dominant global game
June 18, 2014

Aston Villa football team in the late 19th century.

Read more: Is the World Cup a poisoned chalice? Sol Campbell and Simon Kuper debate

On 26th October 1863, representatives of 12 clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street, London, to discuss the creation of a common set of football rules. At the time, most teams played according to distinct rules, influenced by the games they had learnt at school and university. Some advocated a game where the ball could be carried and where “hacking” (kicking the shins) was permitted. Others preferred dribbling as the main method of propelling the ball.

A composite game based on elements of both looked likely. But at the fifth meeting of the new Football Association (FA) on 1st December, a number of supporters of a rugby-style game were absent and President Arthur Pember and Secretary Ebenezer Morley took advantage by removing hacking and running with the ball from the rules.

In response, advocates of the Rugby School game left the FA. They eventually formed the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in 1871 and rugby developed as a separate sport. Over the next half century, the game incorporated in the FA’s first rules, association football, flourished. It spread across the United Kingdom, continental Europe and the informal and formal empire. In many parts of South America, Africa and Asia it was embraced as the national sport and, with the introduction of the World Cup in 1930, became a global game.

But what if Pember and Morley had been absent from the 1st December meeting? How would the sporting world have been different if the advocates of running with the ball had triumphed, with the FA presiding over either a rugby-style game, or one containing elements of both codes?

A rugby-style game might have taken an early lead in the football “code war” that raged from the 1860s to the 1880s. A differently constituted FA might have been more active in convincing followers of dribbling-style games in places like Sheffield, Nottingham and Scotland to convert over to its code. The major cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire might have acted, alongside London, as the bases from which the FA’s rugby game colonised other “football” codes. Cup competitions and leagues might have emerged in rugby first, stoking civic pride and leading to further expansion.

An Association Football Union (though it wouldn’t have been called that) might still have appeared in the early 1870s, as the RFU did. But by then it may have been too late. Given that rugby clubs outnumbered association ones in parts of England anyway during the early to mid-1870s, a dynamic governing body with an eight year head-start might have ensured that football’s dribbling codes were pushed to the margins of British sporting culture by the 1880s.

Alternatively, a very different game, containing characteristics of both soccer and rugby, might have prospered. Rules and styles of play never remain static, of course, and the emerging game may have eventually moved in the direction of one or the other of these sports.

But it is equally possible that a game resembling Gaelic or Australian rules football—where the ball is held in the hand—could have developed, and that this sport would have been the one that British soldiers, engineers and colonial officials took with them around the world.

How would this have affected the global impact of Britain’s version of football? Possibly not a great deal. If we assume that British sports spread largely as a result of the global power and influence of Britain, then any type of football could have succeeded.

But the game was important, too. Soccer’s rules were small in number and easy to understand and translate into different languages. Not much equipment was needed. The game had a continuous flow and arguably a more obvious aesthetic appeal than other football codes.

A different type of football might have been less popular and remained the preserve of British overseas workers and expatriates. If so, there would have been a vacuum into which a rival football code from another country could have stepped. But most of these games were inward-looking, serving narrower national purposes. None was considered ripe for export.

In these circumstances, an American sport, baseball, might well have become the dominant global game. Promoters such as Albert Spalding were eager to globalise baseball in the late 19th century. World tours in the 1870s and 1880s helped the sport gain a foothold in parts of the Pacific and the Caribbean but it struggled elsewhere.

A less popular version of football might have left opportunities that baseball missionaries such as Spalding could exploit. And its global popularity might have been bolstered by its own World Cup, leaving British football to develop as a predominantly national sport.