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The Forgotten Birthplace of International Soccer

More than 140 years ago, the first international football match was played at a cricket ground in Scotland. But if you travel to Hamilton Crescent today, it is easy to forget its unique place in sporting history.

Sep 8 2015, 12:18pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It's easy to romanticise international football. After all, truly memorable moments occur on such an infrequent basis. While you can watch your home club earn another victory every few weeks in a good season, you'll be lucky to see a national team create a moment of magic once in 10 years – think of Teddy Sheringham making it four against the Dutch, James McFadden's howitzer in Paris, or Gerry Armstrong upsetting every living Spaniard for Northern Ireland. These bursts of euphoria make the meaningless mid-season friendlies and relentless qualifying campaigns worthwhile. A great international game can unite millions in a way that few other sports can.

Every story has a beginning. Yet few seem to know why teams representing entire countries ever decided to take to the pitch. England has so firmly stated its claim as inventors of football that few bother to look past it. Any pub quiz bore can tell you the game was first codified at English public schools and Sheffield FC are acknowledged as the oldest club, but it is seldom mentioned that international football began far away from the fields of Eton or Rugby. Press rewind from Zidane headbutting Materazzi or Maradona making a fool of Terry Fenwick and you eventually reach an amateur cricket club in Glasgow.

Even today, Glaswegians can be a little shocked to learn that a sport traditionally viewed as unpopular in Scotland played a starring role in the birth of international football. Among the built-up tenements of Partick – once a town in its own right before it was swallowed up by the Glasgow authorities in 1912 – lies Hamilton Crescent, home to the West of Scotland Cricket Club. It was here that the first official football international was played on November 30, 1872. Scotland hosted England and the result was a 0-0 draw – the last scoreless game involving the two sides until 1970.

Visit Hamilton Crescent today and there is little to suggest it was here a sport that eventually spawned FIFA and the World Cup was first played. It looks almost exactly like it must have 145 years ago: a large grass playing field surrounded by three-storey sandstone tenements in one of the more fashionable enclaves of the city. There's no flashing neon Jules Rimet trophy or framed pictures of Sepp Blatter to be seen. Instead, there's a cricket scoreboard in one corner and a quaint pavilion where you can buy reasonably priced pints of Guinness. Those searching for football's Bethlehem will have to use their imagination. All there is to denote the venue's place in history is a small plaque, gifted by the Scottish FA, fixed high up on one of the pavilion walls.

This forgotten footballing mecca is generally free to enter seven days a week, and the club even permits members of the public to walk their dogs across the hallowed turf provided there is no game taking place. The ground is easily accessible from Glasgow city centre via subway or train, but there were no football tourists to be seen when I visited on a bright Saturday in August. There were hardly any cricket fans either, despite West's first XI hosting Ayr in a Western District Cricket Union league match.

I was here to try and visualise that first ever international game, and also better understand Scots' supposed indifference to cricket. West has been based at Hamilton Crescent since its founding in 1862 by a group of local businessmen. In its infancy the club had grand visions of becoming the MCC of Scotland, and all-England XIs were regularly invited north for challenge matches. In 1891, a team led by no less a player than W. G. Grace beat West by an innings and 33 runs.

Chairman Anthony Lewis, who joined the club 24 years ago and has served as both a player and coach in that time, believes cricket in Scotland is in rude health. "I have to say that the club and the game has a vibrant future," he told me. "There are more registered cricket players in Scotland than you may think. But West, like so many, relies on the good will and hard work of volunteers passing the club from generation to generation.

"The club's development and success relies on getting enough junior players to play senior cricket and then taking on responsibility for running the club itself. Glasgow has a large population and within it there are some very dedicated cricket fans and players."

That famous day in 1872 has not been forgotten by West. "It is a marvellous fact," continues Lewis. "Football games were played at the club after then too. In recent years, the club has also had professional teams train here including Rangers, Partick Thistle and St Mirren."

Lewis says Hamilton Crescent already attracts small numbers of football tourists and the occasional supporters' club, eager to see where the first international took place. Yet this landmark venue does not merit a single mention on the Glasgow Marketing Bureau's website, nor the government-funded VisitScotland homepage. The city's reputation for football now rests almost entirely upon the Old Firm – a greatly diminished fixture that has been played once in three years.

Until 1967, Glasgow was home to six league clubs. It was that year that Third Lanark – a once respectable outfit that won three major honours – went bust. Meanwhile, Clyde decamped for a prolonged and generally miserable stay in Cumbernauld new town in 1995. If you can look past the omnipresence of Celtic and Rangers, the city is left with Partick Thistle and Queen's Park. While the former may have gained international headlines in recent months thanks to its unique mascot Kingsley, it is Queen's who are firmly tied to the story of Hamilton Crescent and the birth of international football.

The Spiders were formed in 1867 and were by far the most successful club in Scotland in the late Victorian era. It was Queen's who accepted a challenge set by Charles Alcock of the Football Association in 1872 for a team to play England. The FA were keen to arrange a fixture north of the border following a five-game series of matches between England and a Scotland team drawn mainly from Scots living in London. There was resentment among Scottish clubs over the lack of their players involved in the series, which took place in London between 1870 and 1872.

Queen's duly arranged the first full international for St Andrew's Day, 1872, and paid West the princely sum of £1 and 10 shillings to hire Hamilton Crescent. Two Scots playing for English clubs were invited to turn out for the home side, but were unable to make the trip. Thus the first ever Scotland team was comprised of 11 Queen's players.

"Everybody involved with Queen's Park is naturally proud of our club's unique place in the history of Scottish football," said general manager Christine Wright. "To have supplied all 11 players for an international team is a remarkable achievement. The fact that it was the first international match in football history makes it even more special. However, while proud of our history, we are also very proud of our continued impact on the national game. Our Hampden home is still the venue for Scotland's international matches."

The first international was due to kick-off at 2pm but was delayed 20 minutes by fog. A crowd of more than 4,000 paid the one shilling gate fee – a huge crowd for a time when football was still largely played on public parks. Scotland opted for an attack-minded 2-2-6 formation, while England, captained by the wonderfully named Cuthbert Ottaway, went for an adventurous 1-1-8 system.

With the concept of television highlights still 90 years away, reports from the game are confined to the sporting periodicals of the time. The Scots enjoyed the better of the chances, and had a goal disallowed in the first half when the referee judged a high shot to have cleared the tape between the two posts – crossbars would not be mandatory until 1882. Despite the lack of goals, fans and players alike went home happy. Bells's Life reported that the occasion was "one of the jolliest, one of the most spirited and most pleasant matches that have ever been played according to Association rules".

Back in the present day at Hamilton Crescent, West's game against Ayr is certainly spirited, but the players, like most athletes in the modern era, are much too focussed to ever be described as jolly. West struggle to impose themselves on their hosts, and Ayr eventually triumph by 80 runs. I ask Lewis if he feels the ground and Partick in general deserves more recognition for its role in footballing history. "I do, and if FIFA, the FA or the SFA want to talk to the club about celebrating the home of international football we would consider a range of options."

It would certainly be fitting if Scotland and England returned to play at Hamilton Crescent one more time to honour the place where it all began.