Deborah Ross: A brief history of the World Cup Widow – through five equally fed-up eras

World Cup Widow

1. The first documented evidence of an activity resembling football can be found in the Chinese military manual Zhan Guo Ce compiled between the 3rd century and 1st century BC. It describes a practice known as cuju (literally "kick ball"), which originally involved kicking a leather ball through a small hole in a piece of silk cloth which was fixed on bamboo canes and hung about 9m above ground. The manual also records the first observation of the game by a woman, who said: "That's not a cloth. That's my best silk skirt. This looks a daft game. I'm bored already. Give me my skirt back." According to this early document, she was told to "shhhh" before being instructed to "go and do something else if you are not interested. Go bind your feet." Other instructions – "go to hell in a handcart"; "I don't talk over Come Dine With Me"; "out the way, you're not made of glass"; "be a love and get the Pringles" – would not come into use for several hundred years, but would be just as trying and annoying.

2. Middle Ages Europe was the stage for violent town games known universally as Mob Football. Played between neighbouring towns and villages, it involved an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people, struggling to move an item such as an inflated pig's bladder, to particular geographical points, such as their opponents' church. This was both unfair on wives, who had to bring the crops in on their own, and unfair on pigs, who missed their bladders. Generally, though, it is felt that the pigs suffered more during this period than the widows. As one yeoman's wife is known to have said: "Having to bring in the crops on my own is pretty galling – why do I always have to do everything around here? – but I can, at least, still urinate, and I am deeply thankful for that."

3. The first reference to goals is in 1602 when Richard Carew, a Cornish country gentleman described how they were made: "They pitch two bushes in the ground, some eight or ten foote asunder; and directly against them, ten or twelve score off, other twayne in like distance, which they terme their Goales". Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yada. Carew died in 1620, before the off-side rule was established, which was a great pity, as he would probably have enjoyed explaining it over and over while pushing condiments across a table.

4. Central to the creation of modern football was Ebenezer Cobb Morley. In 1863, he proposed a governing body which led to a meeting of several football clubs at the Freemason's Tavern in London and the creation of the Football Association. "My, how dull," said his wife, Dorothea, when he told her where he had been that night. "You can carry on talking but you will only be talking to yourself, dear. I'm off to bed." Later, Dorothea would write: "As a wife, one always wants to be loving and supportive and interested, but there are limits."

5. Today's football widow can be found answering the phone, the door, seeing to the kids, feeding the dog all by herself. It is said that some widows may spit on the wallchart in the hall as she brings in the shopping. Today's widow will spend the rest of her time up in the bedroom watching the black-and-white portable that is so old it is probably still rented from DER. Asked how she felt about this, one widow said: "I have no complaints, even though the picture is fuzzy and there is a great deal of ghosting and I think I might want to be dead."

Extracted from A Complete History of the Football Widow, Oxford University Press, and a very resentful publication indeed. Next week's extract: How to say "Get over it, it's just a game" in a way that will really rile him.

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