Winter World Cups and Waterlogged Pitches: Football and the Weather

If there is one thing we love to talk about - it's the weather. It can be wild and wet one day, clear and warm the next. It's constantly changing, a bit like football. The study of football has brought with it a wealth of stories and its history with the elements throws up a load more. In this piece we are going to dissect the peculiar relationship between the two, uncovering articles you might not have heard of and see how the natural world has affected the sport we know and love.

In September, we needn't worry about the weather too much. Pitches are in a good condition after the summer and temperatures are pleasant enough to play in. Fast forward to January and it will be a completely different story. The frustrations of postponements, waterlogged pitches and snow will dominate the news and media of smaller clubs all over the country. Why smaller clubs? It is no secret in the modern game that more and more of the teams playing in the top divisions of English football are thankful for improved facilities, undersoil heating and constant ground maintenance. This however, was not always the case...

Let's go back to the start - the mid 19th century. Football has just been codified, creating the Football Association in the process. The players are upper class schoolboys and alumni - those used to the finer things in life. In terms of the weather it is not hard to find a number of articles discussing its effect on the football. In 1874, The Sporting Times is quick to note football as they first thing to occur to someone when conditions outside are bitterly cold, "because it suggests a means of getting warm."[1]

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Unsurprisingly, the game was called off

By the end of the 1880s, football was well and truly a 'professional' game, prompting the formation of the Football League and providing the first arguments that football had become 'a business'. Indeed, with more aspiring middle-class financial backers, football's relationship with the weather began to take effect in greater proportions. Poor weather meant football was often not safe enough to play or spectate. Many clubs and players relied heavily on gate receipts. Even when the games where on, poor conditions could lead to a dramatic decline in attendances.

"We seem to be getting the worst football weather at time when we expect matters to be improved. We have sampled hard frost, snow, and storms, and the storms seems to be continuing. As they are generally accompanied by gales of wind, football is anything but pleasant. Last Saturday the heavy rains which were so welcome at the reservoirs had ruined the football grounds everywhere, and the players were soon more like sweeps than anything else.[2]"
The fluctuations in weather were clearly a nuisance to the Victorian football fan.
What is most common to find when trawling through the wealth of newspaper articles is the phrase 'real football weather'. Indeed it's an ambiguous term which can be interpreted in a number of different ways. In 1891, the Ripley and Heanor News discusses 'football weather' as splendid and leading to good attendances.[3] The Preston Herald has a different view on the elements a year later - mentioning how football is a 'winter game', with summer conditions, 'a stifle too warm'. They are also quick to acknowledge that supporters begin turn away from the game when a chance to walk along the promenade is available.[4]

The picture above makes note of the good weather in Portsmouth. The caption reads "The winter game in summer weather". Today football is not referred to as a winter game - indeed it is played all year with only a few summer weeks not seeing action. In 1906 (when the picture is taken) summers were taken over by cricket.

By the following century the viewpoints on proper football weather continue to be discussed by journalists. The Western Times in 1931 is quick to praise the conditions in Exeter - "played in real football weather, with heavy showers driving along the sodden ground." In the modern game a wet surface is usually preferred, especially by the tiki-taka specialists Barcelona or the gegenpress tactics of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. Alternatively, the Morecambe Guardian prefers weather in which players have the 'sun on their backs.'[5]

For historians Matthew Taylor and Martin Johnes, the weather was having a substantial impact on spectators in the years preceding the wars. We are often told of the 'good old days' of football where fans turned out in huge numbers every weekend to cheer and sing - but was it all that fun? Johnes mentions the frustrating, uncomfortable and even dangerous conditions in bad weather. This in time led to the introduction of concrete led to popular banks being leveled out and tiered into terraces.[6] There is no doubt that the adverse weather found in the UK was leading to an improvement in stadia and spectatorship.

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Turkey v Switzerland, 2008

So are there any particular matches in history which really highlight the impact of the weather on the beautiful game? For myself I can remember the Euro 2008 match between Turkey and Switzerland, played in the midst of an Alpine storm in which puddles would splash up every time a ball was kicked. Even this year's World Cup Final in Russia fell victim to a downpour during the trophy presentation. Indeed, when watching old footage of football the first thing that comes to mind (after the haircuts) is the state of the pitches. Even in the top leagues, it is easy to see divots, puddles and more mud than grass. 

What the weather has proved is the loyalty in football fans. Taylor notes than even the proudest of fans may not turn up to games in adverse conditions. He cites a match at Preston's Deepdale in 1932 which saw attendances drop from 10,000 to 3,000 on cold and windy day. For author Daniel Gray however, 'bad weather' is one the 50 'Eternal Delights of Modern Football'. Linking weather with loyalty, he notes that 'numb feet are validator of commitment to the cause'. In fact - 'football glows in winter'.[7] Perhaps one of the greatest factors of the weather on football is it truly links all the game from grassroots to the Premier League. Seeing a player for a top club struggling in the rain and thinking, 'I know how that feels' is something which is rarely replicated.

So what will be see in the future? Following the introduction of larger stadiums, some even with roofs, top division football is no longer at risk of constant postponements from rain and wind. Indeed, future tournaments are more concerned with the heat than anything else. The 2022 World Cup has already been the subject of immense scrutiny. There is little doubt that its selection as host was due to corruption in Sepp Blatter's FIFA. However, with the tournament going ahead in just four years - 40+ degree heat has led to the world's greatest spectacle being played in the winter. Perhaps football will be more under the glow of the sun than itself. 

How has the weather changed the game we know and love? It is clear that over the past 150 years the weather has played a major role in making football into the sport it is today. One of the joys of football is the fact it can be played in rain, snow, sun and fog. The weather's effects can have a greater impact than any fan, player or media source. It can help or hinder every club, every player, every spectator. In more recent years, wild and windy conditions have led to an improvement in safety standards, in the construction of modern day super arenas. Of course there will be many fans who nostalgically long for the classic matches played in a stadium of mud - but football has improved significantly in quality since the 1990s. What is sure however, is that historically the weather made the game that bit more beautiful. 

[1] Sporting Times, 1874
[2] Shipley Times and Express, 1894
[3] Ripley and Heanor News, 1891
[4] Preston Herald, 1892
[5] Morecambe Guardian, 1930
[6] Matthew Taylor, The Association Game
[7] Daniel Gray, 50 Eternal Delights of the Modern Game

Also - Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society


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