Littell's Living Age/Volume 127/Issue 1646/Football

From Chambers' Journal.



There was a time when I regarded Poland as a land of patriotic heroes; but after living for a few months among the Hebrews of Warsaw, I began to see reasons for altering my opinion. At another period of my life I looked upon Italy, from a distance, as the abode of sunshine, art, and pleasure; but after living among brigands for nearly three weeks, I returned to my native France a wiser although a poorer man. I had discovered that hearsay, unless softened down by the admixture of a large grain of salt, should not be taken as truth, and that what is ordinarily called romance, resolves itself, upon actual acquaintance, into the least attractive forms of villainy, immorality, extortion, and dirt. Although my eyes had thus been on two occasions opened by a process of painful experience, I could not altogether rid myself of an idea that Utopia existed somewhere or other for me ; and where should it await me, I asked, if not in merry England. So I determined to explore the mysteries of England. We steamed up the Thames in a fog, thickened by the melancholy gloom of ubiquitous smoke, and broken in one place by a dull red spot, which, I was informed, denoted the place where the island sun ought to be. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, but it was nearly dark; and along the riverside the gas-lamps were already lighted, when I went ashore and waited until my baggage was hurled pell-mell upon the quay. After certain formalities had been gone through, I drove to the house of an English friend in Kensington, and soon had the pleasure of finding myself in one of the much-vaunted "sweet homes" of England. Ah! there are carpets everywhere, and gas and water upon every floor. And there are great, guillotine-like windows opening on to balconies covered with pots of smoky flowers. Inside, everything has its covering or ornament. The pianoforte is surmounted by a mat, on which rests a bust of some German composer; and the chairs and lounges are clothed with lace. In the fireplace is a fire hot enough to roast a cow; and at its side are three steel utensils, which remind me of instruments of torture; and a coal-scuttle of the size of a bath.

But these things must not delay me, for my host, knowing that I have come to explore, has suggested that we go to see a football match on the afternoon of the next day, which is Saturday.

Saturday afternoon is, it appears, the great holiday of the English nation. Most of the shops are closed, many of the theatres are open, and amusement becomes the sole aim of the people whom the first Napoleon called "a nation of shop-keepers."

At one o'clock my friend and I set out for Clapham, where the football match is to be played. We go by train. My friend, by the way, tells me that football is a national pastime, and that it is universal throughout the country. It is, he says, as popular, or more so than cricket. Although it is damp and cold, I feel myself elated at the prospect of seeing the sport, especially as in the compartment with us are two fair-haired young men, who, I am informed, are going to take part in the game. They wear thick scarlet stockings of woollen, and knickerbockers of white flannel. Above, they are enveloped in a short, heavy coat. They have no cravats, and on their heads they have small caps of scarlet velvet with tassels of silver. One of them carries a large ball of leather, not just quite round, and which seems very hard, but is wonderfully light. They are good enough to allow me to examine it. I discover that it is tightly laced up with leather thongs over an inner case of india-rubber, which, I am told, is inflated by the breath until it becomes very hard.

At Clapham Junction we alight, and proceed to the common, a large open space covered with turf, on which are a few trees. The situation is picturesque, and there is a pleasant breeze; but the air is damp, and there is much fog. A certain space having been marked out by small flags, two tall poles are erected at both ends of the course, and between them is stretched a piece of tape at a height from the ground of four or five mètres. The length of the course is about one hundred and twenty mètres, and its breadth about eighty. The object of the game is to send the ball between the two posts at the end of the ground possessed by the enemy.

There are many people on the common, and it appears that more than one match is about to be played. All the players have not yet arrived; so I walk about with my friend to keep myself warm. At a stall is a man who sells hot coffee and ices. The mixture is curious, but the man is not alarmed, and beats his chest with his hands, in order to warm himself, for the wind is brisk in the centre of the common.

Suddenly there is a shout, and the players, who have all arrived while I have been drinking my cup of execrable coffee, divest themselves of their coats, and allow me to see that their bodies are covered by thick, close-fitting "jerseys." I also notice that all the young men wear heavy boots. The game is about to commence.

On each side the players arrange themselves in front of the two tall poles, which my friend tells me are called the "goals." The members of one party wear scarlet jerseys, caps, and stockings; those of the other, blue. The effect is enchanting, for each one is strong, and has his biceps well developed. The leader of the "blues" advances to the centre of the course with the ball, and with his heel makes an indentation in the ground, in which he places the inflated leather. Then he looks back, to see that his followers are prepared, and gives some directions, which the force of the breeze prevents my hearing. In the meantime, we, the spectators, retire a short distance, and wait.

When his men are all satisfactorily arranged, the leader of the "blues" steps back a few paces, and then, quickly running forward, deals the ball a blow with his foot, which sends it high in the air in the direction of the "reds." At the same moment the "reds" run toward him with a shout, and one of them catches the ball in his arms. I am growing interested! Football is a noble sport! The "red" who has seized the ball places it under his right arm, and charges towards the "blues" with great precipitation, followed by nearly the whole of his comrades, who upset all the "blues" with whom they meet. But, alas! my champion has been caught by a "blue," who with great dexterity has seized him by the jersey, and caused him to perform a pirouette, which ends in his fall on the ground. Horror! the jersey is torn, and the courageous player lies on his bare back under a mountain of friends and foes, struggling to retain possession of the ball. There are young ladies watching the sport, but they are not perturbed at the spectacle of the torn jersey. They only laugh, and clap their hands with the excitement. And this is English modesty! But the struggle on the ground continues; I can no longer distinguish the forms of the players; they are covered with mud; and of the "red" who held the ball, only his stockings and boots are visible. He will be crushed! But no! I heard him cry plaintively from the midst of the mass, and his comrades disentangle themselves, and aid him to rise. He still holds the ball; and as he rises, he places it between his feet, and with his hands attempts to re-arrange his torn jersey. His comrades on both sides assist him. They are friendly and amiable. Surely they must be very good-tempered. But what is this? The players crowd round the unfortunate "red" once more, supporting each other, while the possessor of the ball places it carefully within the circle formed by their muddy feet. Alas! they will kill each other. What terrible kicks! I can hear them; but I cannot see, for all the players are again, for some moments, mixed in inextricable confusion. I ask my friend if any one is hurt. He tells me coolly that this is only a "hack through," and that no one is very much hurt. Truly these English can suffer.

But now the ball has escaped from the crowd of feet and is rolling across the course towards the goal of the "reds." A "red" seizes it once more in his arms; but he is immediately kicked by a "blue" until he falls and drops it. He is hurt, for there is blood on his lips, and he does not rise. It is horrible! There is a crowd at once, and a comrade goes for water to the coffee-stall. Ah! he is very pale, as he lies there on the grass. I ask my friend if he will die. He says that the "red" has only broken a rib. I think that the "blue" did it, but I am silent, for I am sick. Now the victim is carried away, and the game proceeds as before; but I tell my friend that I have seen sufficient of his national pastime, and that I am ready to return with him to home.

In the train he informs me that in England there are several kinds of football, each played in a different manner. What we have witnessed is the "Rugby game." It is the favourite mode of playing at many places. I am silent, for have not my ideas of the chivalrous nature of sympathetic Englishmen received a rude shock? I had heard that the national pastimes were healthy and invigorating. I am convinced that one of them at least is brutal.