Rowley, Christopher. The Shared Origins of Football, Rugby, and Soccer. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xi+248. Bibliography and index. $36.00 hardback, $35.99 electronic book.
Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke
My graduate advisor originally hails from Peru, and he is fond of telling a story from his earliest days as a graduate student in the United States. During his first year in the country in the early 1990s, he entered a free grocery-store contest and ended up winning two tickets to attend the Super Bowl. For a man from South America, whose passion about fútbol and its intricacies is unbounded, the gridiron was an absolute mystery at that point. He had a concrete vision of football, and the American version did not fit that understanding.
Colleagues and friends congratulated him on his good fortune, yet my advisor had little desire to sit in a stadium to watch a game that made no sense. So, passing up the opportunity to attend an event that millions of Americans dream of witnessing live, he sold the two tickets and turned his prize into something even more valuable to a graduate student – grocery money. The following season my advisor sat down with a friend who explained the game to him, and he came to understand and enjoy the American version of the sport. Yet to this day football first and foremost means the kicking game in his vernacular.
How did the word “football” come to mean so many things to so many different people around the globe? In his book The Shared Origins of Football, Rugby, and Soccer, Christopher Rowley attempts to trace a linear path from the earliest team ball sports to the seven main football codes that are played around the world today. At many points the fragmentary nature of the resources leads Rowley to draw upon his skills as a novelist and journalist, and the result is a book that relies in many places on creative historical reconstructions designed to place the reader at the scene at various points of evolution.
The author takes a mostly chronological approach to the subject, beginning with a look at ancient ball games in Mesoamerica, China, and Celtic England. In many ways this is the only substantive treatment that Mesoamerica and China receive in the book, and clear connections are never made between these sports and regions and how they fit into the broader narrative that Rowley is trying to tell. This chapter feels as though the American and Asian examples were added merely to satisfy the need to acknowledge their existence and to set up the Celtic storyline that continues onward, as Rowley covers two centuries of developments outside of Europe in the initial chapter and then moves on to the story he actually wants to tell.
Greek ball games such as pheninda (a game resembling handball with elements of rugby) and episkyros (a kicking and throwing game played with a leather-encased bladder redolent of early modern footballs) serve as the real launch point of Rowley’s origin story. Unlike the prestige-laden athletic and combat competitions of the Panhellenic games, Rowley notes that these ball sports were more common pastimes played on a spontaneous and recreational basis. Tracing the lineage between these Greek games, especially pheninda and its Roman forbear harpastum, the author sets up his audience for a clash of cultures. The Roman campaigns in Britain provide a plausible means of explaining how Greco-Roman ball construction might have disseminated to England. Castoff equipment, Rowley opines, might have made its way down to local Celtic population who used the balls to play games that meshed indigenous and Roman forms of play.
At this point Rowley shifts his attention squarely on the British Isles as the epicenter of the sport’s evolution. Whether due to a limited corpus of source materials, or the language barriers that often arise when conducting transnational studies of any type, allusions to Chinese or Mesoamerican influences become increasingly scarce deeper into the book. While there are some anecdotes from these regions as well as mainland Europe spliced through the narrative, the history of ball games in these other regions is largely subsumed in a storyline that firmly anchors England as the spiritual home of football.
Rowley admits up front in his introduction that he is not a trained historian and that he is not necessarily producing a purely academic monograph. He is obviously a skilled storyteller, and much of the substantive details about football and its ancestor sports are easily verifiable through the bibliography of sources. While there is nothing revolutionary within the story beyond the interweaving of conjectural recreations with diligent research, he has produced a compelling overview of the shared history of the various games known as football. While Rowley refrains from footnoting his references throughout the book, the work draws upon a wide variety of secondary research that is clearly documented in a bibliography at the end of the work.
Where the book ultimately fails as a useful resource is more an indictment of the editorial and publishing process than of research or writing on the part of the author. The index at the back of the book is effectively irrelevant, as none of the page numbers correspond to any of the stated terms of interest. After scanning through two dozen different words from various sections of the index, one wonders whether the index corresponds to an earlier draft copy and was never adjusted in final proof.
Ultimately The Shared Origins of Football, Rugby, and Soccer is written for popular audiences that are unlikely to concern themselves with the index or worry about references. The author appears to have done his due diligence in terms of the research, but the structural issues regarding the index would need to be rectified before it can be considered of much value from an academic standpoint. For football (or rugby or soccer) fans who unfamiliar with the history of their favorite sports prior to the mid-19th century, the book is a quick and engaging read that offers a broad-strokes look at the history that led to the variety of modern football codes.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.