Rowing is a Funny Old Game

14 November 2022

By Greg Denieffe

Greg Denieffe joins the football cliché brigade.

Early Doors

A 1933 cigarette card from Ogden’s ‘A. F. C. Nicknames’ series depicting Luton Town, nicknamed ‘The Hatters’. Luton is famous for its straw-plaiting industry, and when the boater was commonly worn, the club was known as the ‘Straw-hatters’. I’m sure that many of the boaters topping the heads of HRR spectators are still made in the town.

There are around 120 articles on HTBS that have the tag ‘professional rowing’, hardly surprising for a rowing history website. These articles provide interesting, entertaining, and informative pieces on the evolution of the sport of rowing to what we know it as today. The golden era for the professionals, from the mid-nineteenth century to the start of WWI, showcased the interest that the working class had in sport, if only for the gambling that became professional rowing’s nemesis.

As the public’s interest in rowing waned, football (AKA soccer) more than filled the gap. Football attracted huge crowds willing to pay to see the games, buy the programmes and fill their bellies with meat and potato pies – and all in a relatively small space, where the wealthy club owners could take advantage of not just the punters but the players as well. The players were the de facto property of the club, traded and kept on a short leash by the money-men. When their contracts were finished, they relied on the club resigning them, transferring them for a fee, or releasing them, so that they could continue to earn a living.

Let me tell you a true story regarding a 1950s Luton (a town that I lived and/or worked in for thirty years) Town F. C. (LTFC) player. At the time, football players were better paid than most workers but not to such an extent that they were out of touch with their neighbours and fans. They lived in the similar terraced houses and cycled to the ground for training and on match days. Luton Town had a decent team at the time, with several England international players and a hierarchy of wages reflecting their position within the team. During the off-season, wages would come down as win-bonuses dried up and cash flow became tighter. One LTFC player approached the manager for a raise in wages and pointed out that a teammate was on higher pay, despite the fact that they both played in the same position and played a similar number of games. The manager told the player – let’s call him Oliver Twist, that his teammate was a better player and that was why he got paid more. Oliver pointed out to the manager that that wasn’t true in the off-season, but he didn’t get the rise.

As the game of football spread, new clubs sprang up, other sports clubs added football to their curriculum and multi-sports clubs were not uncommon. In England, The Wednesday Cricket Club in Sheffield, added football to their activities to keep their players fit during the winter and Sheffield Wednesday F. C. was born; cricket was soon dropped altogether.

The Brazilians are over the moon

On the other side of the world, several Brazilian football clubs began life as rowing clubs and continue to pay tribute to their origins by keeping a rowing term in their name or a rowing symbol on their crest. Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro, was founded in 1895 and introduced football in 1911. Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama, another club from Rio, was founded in 1898 and added football in 1915.

A third football club from Rio, Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas, reinstated the rowing connection in their name in 1942,  but has lost the crossed oars that once graced their crest.

Official names and crests of Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas. You can see all three Rio clubs in action in the near-three-hour-long video of the 2022 State Championship Regatta held on Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon on 16 October 2022.

In São Paulo, Sport Club Corinthians Paulista began life in 1910 as a multi-sports club, but they only added an anchor and oars to their crest in 1939; they are still there today. Clube Náutico Capibaribe (CNC), a Série B side, began life in 1901 in Recife as Clube Náutico do Recife and added football in 1905. Another Série B club, Clube de Regatas Brasil (CRB), was formed in 1912 as a breakaway from an earlier rowing club, Clube Alagoano de Regatas.

The crests of Brazilian football clubs: Corinthians, CNC and CRB offer clues to their rowing heritage.
The football club, Clube de Regatas Guará, from Guará, a satellite town just west of the Brazilian capital of Brasília, was formed as late as 1957. Their more recent crests were influenced by that of Corinthians. The copyright laws in Brazil must be very lenient.

Not all rowing on Rio’s Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas was recreational or voluntary. The following 1847 image, captioned ‘Barque de passage à Rio-Janeiro’, shows a small oar-propelled ferry operated by black slaves. I don’t recognise the one-leg-push style of rowing, which is quite different from the style used by galley slaves in Roman or Egyptian images. A remarkable number of descendants of African slaves play football at the highest level in Brazil, and their eye-watering salaries, especially if they move to Europe, would astound the old Lutonians.

Picture: Le Magasin Pittoresque (1847) p. 184.

The Soviets set out their stall

In other countries, multi-sport clubs were more common. In the former Soviet Union, Voluntary Sports Societies (VSS) were the main structural part of the state’s universal sports system. Many of the names of these VSS will be familiar to European football fans; several of them had a rowing section and whilst they could pass the amateur tests of Henley Royal Regatta or the International Olympic Committee, they were full-time athletes being paid to row and represent the USSR. At Henley Royal Regatta, crews from the USSR won the Grand Challenge Cup nine times, The Stewards Challenge Cup eight times, The Silver Goblets four times, The Double Sculls five times and the Diamond Sculls once. Most of these rowing clubs were part of larger VSS, and their names reveal the source of their membership: Dinamo/Dynamo were the security services, Trud was one of many labour clubs and Kyrla was the club for aeronautical workers.

The Swiss always give 110 per cent

The most famous ‘football’ club to make headlines in the world of rowing is Fussballclub Zürich (FCZ). Founded as a multi-sports club in 1896 with football as its main focus, FCZ’s sporting remit included rowing, boxing, athletics, and handball. This situation remained in place until 1937 when a restructuring resulted in the formation of an independent Ruderclub Zürich (RCZ).

The timing of the restructure is important because in 1936, whilst still FCZ, the club won three of the four open events at Henley Royal Regatta. They won the Grand Challenge Cup for the first time and retained both the Stewards’ Challenge Cup and Diamond Challenge Sculls that they had won in 1935. At the 1936 Olympic Games, racing as Switzerland, they picked up two medals in the fours events, results that were disappointing but understandable given the lane allocations and racing conditions.

Ernst Rufli (FCZ) leading Thomas ‘Tig’ Harold Tyler (Thames R. C.) in a heat of the Diamonds at Henley in 1935. Tyler is passing the Wall of Death tent whilst Rufli, a former FCZ goalkeeper, saves himself for the next round. Rufli beat his clubmate (see Henley Royal Regatta by Richard Burnell, 1989), J. Zavrel, in the 1935 final and Tyler in the final the following year. Zavrel represented Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics, where Rufli finished fifth. Photograph: Thames Rowing Club Archive.

There is inconsistency amongst rowing historians over how FCZ is titled during their exploits at Henley when they were still a football club. In Burnell’s book, they are indexed as ‘Zurich Rowing Club (also FC Zurich)’ and in the results records for the Grand as ‘Zurich RC, SUI’, and for both the Stewards’ and the Diamonds as ‘FC Zurich RC, SUI’. In The Brilliants – A History of Leander Club (1997) by Burnell and Geoffrey Page, they are ‘Ruder Club, Zurich’. HTBS’s own Christopher Dodd uses ‘Zürich Football Club’ in his 2006 history of London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft. On this site, the club are tagged as ‘Zurich RC’.

FCZ cross the finishing line 1¼ lengths ahead of Leander Club in the final of The Grand Challenge Cup in 1936. Crew: W. Schweizer, F. Feldman, R. Homberger, O. Neuenschwander, H. Betsschart, H. Homberger, A. Homberger, K. Schmid, R. Spring (cox). The stern four of the FCZ Grand crew also won The Stewards’ Challenge Cup.
A picture paints a thousand words. Fussballclub Zürich wearing their FCZ tracksuits show off their remarkable haul of trophies in the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta in 1936. Rufli is holding the Diamond Challenge Sculls trophy and his Pineapple Cup, the other two trophies being, The Grand Challenge Cup (L) and The Stewards’ Challenge Cup (R). You can see a colourised version of this photograph here.

The GESCHICHTE section of Rudderclub Zürich‘s website writes (in German) about the transition from FCZ to RCZ (rough translation):

In the winter of 1936/37, the FCZ had to cede the Letzigrund to the city of Zurich due to financial difficulties. The athletics, hockey, boxing, and rowing sections became independent. This is how the RCZ Ruder-Club Zürich was born.

Sie denken, es ist alles vorbei. Ist das jetzt!* Vom FCZ zum RCZ – From FCZ to RCZ. Photograph: Rudderclub Zürich.

Football is THE sport for clichés, and its master craftsman was Bill Shankly, a Scot who managed Liverpool F. C. for fifteen years. His most famous misquote is: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude; I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The truth is that he was asked by an interviewer about his regrets about putting football ahead of his family, and he replied: “Somebody said that ‘football’s a matter of life and death to you’, I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that’.”

My favourite Shankly observation can easily be adapted to any team sport, especially to a rowing crew. Shankly always put the importance of teamwork ahead of individual success but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate a good player when he saw one.

 “A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”

*You think it’s all over. It is now!


  1. Having been born in Luton I was delighted to see the town and its football club get a mention in HTBS. The team is still called the Hatters, at least by some, and it still plays at Kenilworth Road , its home since 1905. My first rowing experience was on the lake in Wardown Park and when they still called you back in via a megaphone!

  2. Harry Redknapp tells the same story about footballer’s holiday wages. He says it was him at West Ham. Harry claims he was comparing his wages to Bobby Moore’s.

  3. Another English example of a football club arising from a rowing club is Brentford FC, currently playing in the English Premier League.
    The members of Brentford Rowing Club (no longer in existence) wanted a team sport for the winter months. According to Wikipedia, “On 16 October 1889, the rowing club members again met at the Oxford & Cambridge pub [also no longer in existence, but on the same site as the new pub ‘One Over the Ait’ at the north end of Kew Bridge] and it was voted that the new club would play association football, be named “Brentford Football Club” and wear salmon, claret and light blue colours, the same as that of the rowing club.”

  4. You haven’t mentioned the Argonauts Rowing club of Toronto who founded and owned the Toronto Argonauts Football Club of the Canadian Football League until the late 1950’s .
    This being North America the Football is gridiron , Canadian rules , 12 a side .

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