Soccer’s first international: The genesis of the passing game.

An artist's impression of the match.

A few months after the first international rugby match between England and Scotland, the Auld Enemy met for the first official association football international match on November 30th, 1872. Like its rugby counterpart, the match was played in Scotland on a cricket ground. Hamilton Crescent, the West of Scotland Cricket Ground, was selected as the venue.


Set up:

Prior to the first official meeting, there had been several unofficial international matches played between the countries at the behest of the English Football Association. The first encounter of five matches between teams representing England and Scotland took place on 5 March 1870 at the Oval in London, resulting in a 1-1 draw. The remaining four games played till February 1972 all resulted in either draw or English wins, the side representing Scotland failing to make any mark to glory.

For these matches, the “Scotland” team was assembled mostly from players in and around London who had Scottish connections. This naturally lit resentment in Scotland that their team did not contain more home grown players. 

Charles William Alcock, then secretary of The Football Association and the Captain of the English side, proceeded to challenge Scotland on an official international match with a Scottish team drawn from Scotland and proposed the north of England as a venue.

Charles W. Alcock
Charles W. Alcock



Queen’s Park Club and the offside rule:

The challenge was accepted by the leading club of Scotland at the time, Queen’s Park Club. Till the formation of the Scottish FA in 1873, they governed the game in Scotland, much like the Marylebone Cricket Club in cricket. When the club was established in 1867, the version of the offside rule they observed held that a player was infringing only if he were both beyond the penultimate man and in the final fifteen yards of the field. That. clearly was far more conducive to passing than the FA’s offside law.

The FA’s offside law underwent multiple revisions and the earliest recorded version was the Law 6 of the Cambridge University Football Rules which said, “When a player has kicked the ball, anyone of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal-line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play.” 

In other words, passes had to be lateral or backward. The game in England was based mostly on dribbling where each player charged along to the opponent’s goal, dribbling the defense on their way. Anything other than charging directly at a target, like for instance passing, was considered suspiciously subtle and unmanly, and so the rule went well with the style of play.

In 1866, Law 6 was changed permitting a forward pass provided there were at least three members of the defensive team between the player and the opponent’s goal when the ball was played. This rule, though created a lot of space to the passing game, made little differences to the ones brought up on the dribbling game.

On the other hand, Queen’s Park finally accepted this three-men variant of the offside rule when they joined the FA on November 9th 1870, but by then the idea of passing that their different offside rule had conjured in their playing style was already implanted deep.


The match:

Goalkeeper and Captain Robert Gardner selected the Scotland side where all XI players were from Queen’s Park club. Charles W. Alcock made the selections for the England team from around nine English clubs. Alcock was himself unavailable for the match due to an injury and so the captaincy passed to Cuthbert Ottaway.

The England team’s line-up comprised a goalkeeper, a three-quarter back, a half-back, a fly-kick, four players listed simply as “middle“, two as “left side” and one as “right side“. Trying to apply modern notation, this would be approximately a 1-2-7 formation. The formation of the Scottish team was a 2-2-6.

Crucially the Scottish were about eighteen pounds per man lighter than England. It is indicative of the physicality of early soccer that most pundits seemed to have expected that weight advantage would give England a comfortable victory. Queen’s Park had different plans in their minds. They decided that they would try to pass the ball around their opponents rather than engage in a more direct man-to-man contest in which they were likely to get out-muscled.

After all the speculation, the physical advantage, and the experience that the English had brought along, 0-0 was a success story to the Scotland team.

Line-ups according to the records:

England: R Barker; EH Greenhalgh; R Welch, F Chappell; JF Morice, WJ Maynard, CJ Chenery, C Ottaway, A Kirke-Smith, JC Cleff, J Brockbank.

Scotland: R Gardner; W Kerr, J Taylor; JJ Thomson, J Smith; R Smith, R Lechie, A Rhind, W McKinnon, JB Weir, D Wotherspoon.




This match was a clash between the “dribbling game” that was a characteristic of the English and the Scottish “passing game”. Though there were no clear winner, the home side went on to stick to their style of play until a later time. In England, however, the Scottish style started gaining a lot of attention and led to what was then called the “combination game”. “Combination” here would mean a combination of dribbling and long passes.

Football would incorporate both dribbling and passing from then on, adding a new dimension of thought into the game.


A documentary.


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