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Uncovering University’s football history

Scotland may be absent from this summer’s World Cup, but the country’s influence in shaping the beautiful game lives on.

In the UK, Europe and farther afield, Scots were football pioneers and it was an Edinburgh student who is credited with founding the world’s first football club - a story explored in this film.

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Samba Scots

Victorian-era illustration of a football game

It was a Scottish expatriate named Thomas Donohue who first took the sport to Brazil in 1894.

Three years earlier, Edinburgh alumnus Alexander Watson Hutton, who graduated in Philosophy in 1881, founded the Argentine Association Football League. He is considered the father of football in Argentina.

None of this would have happened without the vision of Edinburgh law student John Hope, who founded the world’s first documented football club in 1824.

Hope, then a 17 year old, organised a season of games for the Foot-Ball Club he had formed in Edinburgh.

This was not football in its modern form. The club's games probably resembled the rough and tumble of traditional ball games played in many places. A letter of 1825 refers to a game involving 39 players, and 'such kicking of shins and such tumbling'.

Sticks marked the goals. The only surviving club rules forbade tripping, but allowed pushing and holding and the lifting of the ball. A 'chairman' seems to have acted as a referee.

The club’s first known ground was the park on the Dalry estate in the city's south-west suburbs. The club was dominated by young lawyers and other professionals, and the sons of the Edinburgh legal fraternity and the landed gentry.

Starting with 61 members, the club grew to 85 members in 1826-7 season. In 1831, they moved to Greenhill parks in Bruntsfield, and by 1839-40 the club was meeting in Grove Park, west of Gardeners Crescent.

The last written record relating to the club, dated February 1841, is an enquiry concerning temporary membership, which shows the club was still active.

A portrait of John Hope was recently donated to New College by the Hope Trust, which John Hope founded in 1890. It will be put on display within New College in due course.

Pioneering spirit lives on

John Hope’s pioneering ethos continues to this day, with the University’s own football team. Next season it will play in the recently expanded Scottish Lowland Football League, offering a path to the Scottish Professional Football League in future years.

It is an echo of the determination to break new ground which led Edinburgh students to play a team from the 93rd Highlanders in 1851. The victorious soldiers were awarded a medal - paid for by the Edinburgh students - which is regarded as the oldest football trophy in the world.

The University has always recognised football’s ability to bring about social change and improve education. In 2012, the world’s most famous exponent of the game, Pele, was awarded an honorary degree by Edinburgh for his charitable work.

With an office in Sao Paulo, which allows the university to engage directly with students, alumni and academic partners across latin America, Edinburgh is leading the way by working with the best and brightest across the region. Pioneering tactics of which John Hope would no doubt approved.

Illustration from the Scottish Football Museum