Origins of Football in the Levant

Mohamad El Chamaa

Association football at the Syrian Protestant College traces its origins back to Victorian England, where it was played first by students of elite schools since 1850 as a result of the ethos of Muscular Christianity in England.

By 1880, football and other sports like rugby were made mandatory, with some schools such as Lancing College and Harrow School making it a twice-a-week regiment. Men of the lower echelons of society were also exposed to football through schooling, the local YMCA or church, and factories with football teams. The rules of the game were formalized in 1863, which led to the creation of the English Football Association. Enthusiasm for association football also permeated into the British military, and most importantly the British Navy. Football was used to keep soldiers fit and preoccupied, especially in the case of the Navy when ships were docked in strategic ports of the British Empire, specifically in Egypt.

Both the institution of soccer in English schools and the football tournaments played by the British Navy were instrumental to importing and molding football on the grounds of the Syrian Protestant College. The development of football as a British sport was in the backdrop in the life of a young English Quaker by the name of Thomas Little, born circa 1857. For the first half of his life, Little was an educator at countless schools, including Rawdon College and Wigton School.

Little was no stranger to the development of football in schools, which was taking place at the time. In 1887, he was stationed in Brummana at the boys’ training hall (now Brummana High School.)  

There in Brummana,  Thomas Little introduced the rudiments of association football to the Levant through his students. To this day, locals claim that the first football field in the Middle East was in Brummana. The Egyptian students at the Syrian Protestant College are also credited with popularizing the game on campus, as they had seen it played by British soldiers in Egypt.

Canadian Charles Webster made football part of the Field Day activities in 1896. The British Navy’s role in molding football on the SPC grounds didn’t end there. On more than one occasion, football teams of British Navy ships (composed of Navy staff and Seamen) would stop by the SPC campus to play football with student and staff teams.

1910 saw the visit of the crew of the H.M.S. Barham, which played against and beat both the student team and the staff team.  The physical director of SPC at the time, Joseph Smurthwaite, noted that because of the “style of play shared with us, that we have yet a great deal to learn.” The field was narrower than what the British Navy men were used to. Another visit by the British Navy came in the year 1912, with the football team of the H.M.S Edinburgh playing against the SPC team.

In February of 1914, the football team of the H.M.S. Chatham arrived to play on campus and defeated both the student and the staff teams; the New-Zealand Chatham Cup was named after the ship that the crew members worked on.

Members of the British Navy weren’t the only armed forces to visit the campus’ football field. Howard Bliss mentions “the use of our splendid athletic field at the disposal of armed men of war of various nationalities that have visited Beirut.” In addition to military men away from home, the SPC football field also hosted non-combatant crew members, such as those of the commercial White Star Liner the S.S. Arabic, which is the same S.S. Arabic that was sunk by the German submarine U-24 three months after the sinking of the Lusitania.

The SPC teams did not only host foreign players; the staff and the student teams also played football in Cyprus, where they presumably won against the British Navy that was stationed there under the British protectorate of Cyprus. The teams also played in Jerusalem during the Easter time.

Furthermore, like college sports today in America, the Syrian Protestant College sold tickets for audiences to watch the football matches unfold. A 1911 issue of Al-Kulliyeh urges readers to attend the football matches to generate revenue for the renovation of the athletic facilities. The football field’s foreign visitors stated above give the reader an idea of the attractiveness of the field, given that it was the only one of its kind in Beirut at the time.

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