On May 24th, 2008, a game of soccer was played in New Westminster, British Columbia that was like no other the spectators had seen before. The two teams involved were Sapperton Rovers and Royal City Club Coaches.
The game commemorated a match played 146 years earlier in 1862, which had been the first of its kind to take place in the newly created province of BC. The 1862 match was played between the Royal Engineers, who comprised over half of New Westminster’s then population of 500, and the townsfolk.
The game I watched was played on a normal-sized soccer pitch, rather than a 150-yard one, which could have been the case in 1862. In most other respects, my game was faithful to a lot of the features of the 1862 version. There were two posts at each end, 15 feet apart but without a crossbar. There was no position of goalkeeper and no restrictions as to where any player could go on the pitch. There were two referees, dressed in white, and a goal judge behind each goal. As long as the ball passed between the two posts, no matter at what height, a goal was awarded. There were no corner flags as in the modern game, but there were a set of flags marking each team’s 25-yard line. Players wore rugby jerseys and knickerbockers tucked into long, colourful socks. The game I saw had 10 players on each side, though in 1862 as long as each team had the same number of players, it didn’t matter how many people were on the pitch – you can perhaps understand why they needed 150-yards to play in under circumstances! This brings me to the rules of the original game, which were similar both to those of Australian Rules football, as played down under to this day, and to Rugby Union, but without the scrums, mauls, rucks, and lineouts.
The rules applied to my game were those developed at Cambridge University in 1863. The biggest difference to me as a spectator was that players couldn’t pass the ball forwards to one of their own team, unless the player was behind them when the ball was kicked. This inevitably led to a lot of sideways passes followed by a long ball down the field for the players to chase. However, if the ball went over their opponent’s goal line and was then touched down by a member of the attacking team before the ball went out of play, then this player got a free kick at goal from their opponents’ 25-yard line. This rule is the same as in the early days of Rugby Union, when such a touchdown, or try, meant that the player touching the ball down could ‘try’ to score a goal – the only method of scoring a point in the early days of this game. If the ball went dead, the defending team were allowed to take a free kick from their 25-yard line.
The other major difference in the rules was that all players were allowed to handle the ball, but weren’t allowed to catch it. This looks very odd to the spectator, as everyone is a potential shot-stopper or goalkeeper when called upon. Indeed, players favoured their hands under most circumstances to control the ball, instead of heading it or chesting it down.
My game was very fast with a lot of ebb and flow from one end of the pitch to the other; one big kick turning defence into attack in a couple of seconds. Although shoulder-charging was fair and part of the rules, there were very few fouls committed for tripping, pushing, or kicking an opponent. At the start, the referee mainly blew for offside, when players forgot about passing to one of their own team who was ahead of them. Some players couldn’t get used to this, “that is the strangest part of the game,” said one, “passing to someone on your own side feels like the most natural thing in the world, but it was illegal if he was ahead of you.” The players also found the game very tiring indeed “It’s more like rugby than soccer,” said another. Substitutions could be made at any time and people could go off for a rest and then come back on again.
The ball in the 1862 game was probably made from a pig’s bladder, but the 2008 version was very light and made to look like an old hand-stitched, leather ball – the type that had concussive qualities when headed incorrectly by players on rainy days.
Some other interesting rules included the fact that the team who scored got to kick off again. The teams also agreed before the game how long the match should last. The one rule that I did like, which I think should be included in the modern game of soccer, is that when the ball went out of play at the side of the pitch, there were no throw-ins, but instead the ball was kicked back into play, which means more free-kicks in the game and more opportunities for attacking play.
Another fascination was to watch was how the teams’ tactics changed during the game as they got used to the rules. For instance, both teams deployed at least one player, usually the slowest, to parade in front of the goal, and it was easy to see how the goalkeeping position developed. The walls that were formed 10 yards from free kicks successfully handled about 50% of the shots, preventing a goal in most cases.
However, there were goals aplenty. The 2008 game finished 8-8, the Club Coaches were leading at half-time 5-3, but were pegged back by two late Sapperton Rovers’ goals at the end. There is talk of this game becoming an annual event, so if you are in New Westminster next year at Whitsuntide make sure you head to Queen’s Park and watch sporting history come to life in front of your eyes.