David Francis, Interpretation Officer
With the World Cup Final nearly upon us, I thought it would be interesting to search through the British Museum collection and see what footballing-related treasures could be unearthed. The Museum does not specifically set out to collect football-related objects; that remit falls to the National Football Museum in Manchester. However, the prevalence of objects related to football in the collection reflects the popularity of the sport, both in our current time and as part of our cultural heritage.
The story begins with objects related to ancient team ball games that had independently evolved in different parts of the world that act as football’s great ancestral forefathers. These include the Chinese game cuju and its Japanese equivalent kemari. However, the world’s earliest known team game, and perhaps most famous, is the Central American ball game, represented in the British Museum by the ceremonial ball game belt.
Like football, using your hands was prohibited in the ball game, but players were also restricted from using their feet or heads. Only the buttocks, forearms and the hips were allowed to touch the ball. To protect their hips from the rubber ball, which was heavy and could weigh as much as 15kg, players would wear padded belts made of cloth or basket work. The Museum’s stone version of the belt is thought to have been worn in ceremonies associated with the ball game. Points were scored through a system of faults such as if the ball left the court, or if it touched a prohibited part of the body. In many ways the ball game resembled keepy uppy rather than the modern game of football.
Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.
The Museum’s collection of prints and drawings also provides many 19th- and 20th-century depictions of the game. A print by Isaac Robert Cruikshank from about 1825, depicting a melee of jovial soldiers, some trampled beneath the feet of the mob that pursue the ball, captures the wildness of the game before it was formerly codified in London in 1863. Another print from 1780 depicting two English sailors kicking a Spanish lord around as a football, reinforces the link between footballers and violence. This association harks back to English football’s medieval origins when it was a game played en masse as part of Shrovetide celebrations and frequently banned by the authorities as a threat to civil order.
In stark contrast are the later modernist depictions of football in the collection, such as a 1921 Paul Nash illustration from John Drinkwater’s ‘Cotswold Characters’. Here, the players are faceless mannequins and the focus is instead on the dynamism of the spherical ball as it moves through a series of geometric rectangles beyond the outstretched arm of the diving goalkeeper. The print freezes the image at the crucial moment that the ball crosses the line, which would nowadays be captured by goal line technology. Although the print depicts a game in the rural Cotswolds, its depiction of the athleticism of the players and the skill and excitement of the game reflects the transition from football being viewed as a violent rabble to a professionalised sport.
Finally, within the Museum there is also an eclectic bunch of footballing paraphernalia and related objects that when combined creates a cabinet of curiosities of the beautiful game. These include a football woven from rattan palm stems from Burma, a nickel-chrome referee’s stop watch in the horological collections, and a Mexican model from the 1986 World Cup depicting an imaginary encounter between the Brazilian and Mexican sides as Day of the Dead skeletons. Here are objects that were not intended to last forever now preserved within the Museum for all time, waiting for a scholar of football and material culture to unearth them and unlock their secrets.
David Francis is a dependable, if unspectacular, right-back for the British Museum football team. The team plays in an annual tournament with others from across London, including the National Gallery, the White Cube and Tate. The current team is only the latest in a rich lineage of footballing talent, as can be seen in the photograph from the Archives of the 1919–20 season.