Soccer - also known as “football” - is the world’s most popular sport, with over 250 million players in more than 200 countries and dependencies around the globe.
It’s especially popular in the UK and Europe but is growing in popularity in the US, too, with 4.2 million players (2.5 million male and 1.7 million female) registered with U.S. Soccer.
But do you ever wonder how a game that attracts millions of fans and players around the world came to be in the first place?
In this article, we’re going to navigate back through time to when soccer was invented, providing you with a detailed account of the official - and less official - origins of the game.
The Historical Roots of Soccer
We usually think of Victorian England when we think of the origins of soccer. This is because the first governing body, the Football Association, was established in 1863, and the creation of the Football Association established a standardized and universally-accepted set of rules for players to follow.
This was no doubt the conception of the modern game of soccer, however, if we’re talking about the non-official roots of the game, these can be traced back centuries earlier to several locations around the world where different ball-kicking games arose.
One of the earliest evidenced forms of soccer is the Chinese game of cuju (蹴鞠, which translates literally to "kick ball").
Cuju was played by attempting to kick the ball through an opening in the net, and players could use any part of their body other than the hands, much like soccer.
The game was first mentioned as an exercise in Chinese military work from the 3rd–2nd century BC, but during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), cuju games were standardized and rules were established. Cuju grew in popularity, spreading from the army to the royal courts and upper classes.
A court was built especially for the game and was known as ju chang, which had six crescent-shaped goalposts at each end. Matches were often held inside the imperial palace, and Han emperor Wu Di was supposedly a big fan of the sport.
Cuju is certainly one of the earliest forms of soccer.
A defining moment for China was in 2005 when Sepp Blatter, the then-head of FIFA, declared Linzi, China, as the likely birthplace of world football.
Cuju has decreased in popularity over the centuries, though there are still some teams in China striving to keep the traditional game alive and kicking...
Episkyros was the name of an ancient greek ball game, which involved two teams of 12-14 people handling or kicking a ball. An image of an Episkyros player which can be found on a vase at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens also appears on the UEFA European Championship trophy.
There are a few significant differences between the game and football as we know it today, however.
Episkyros was more violent than modern-day football, and also allowed the hands to be used, however, the aim was to get the ball past the white line on the opposition’s side of the pitch, and the tactics employed to do this - as well as the reliance on teamwork and defense - would help form the early basis for soccer. There was also another similar Greek ball game called phaininda.
The Greek games of episkyros and phaininda were later adopted by the Romans.
They would rename the game as harpastum, which was also referred to as the ‘small ball game’ by the Romans. The ball used was smaller than a football and hard, more like a softball in its characteristics.
Harpastum is thought to mean "to seize” or “to snatch", and while the rules of the ancient game are less clear, general impressions are than a line was drawn in the dirt, and teams would attempt to keep the ball behind their side of the line to prevent opponents from taking it.
Not enough is known of the game to accurately describe the rules, however, there are also some clear similarities between rugby and harpastum, and like Episkyros, it appears early defense tactics could have been drawn from the game.
Kemari (蹴鞠) was a ball game popular in Japan during the Heian period. The first evidence of the game traces it back to around 644 CE, though rules were standardized during the 13th century. The kanji characters for the game are the same as Cuju in Japanese.
The main object of Kemari is to keep the ball in the air, with players able to use any part of their body apart from the arms and hands to keep the ball aloft.
The ball is known as a mari, and is traditionally made of deerskin with the hair facing inwards and the hide outwards. The ball is stuffed with barley grains to provide shape, and when the hide has set in shape, the grains are removed and the ball is sewn together using the skin of a horse.
Kemari is played on an area of flat ground measuring 6–7 meters squared. Players usually wear traditional uniforms called kariginu, which were fashionable during the Asuka period.
Pasuckuakohowog is a Native American game that translates to "they gather to play ball with the foot.” The game can be traced back to the 17th century, where it was played on beaches with goals about a half-mile-wide and set one mile apart.
Many Pasuckuakohowog games had up to 1000 players and were known to be very violent, with players often quitting due to broken bones and serious injuries.
Similarly, in Central and northern South America in 1600 BC Mayans played a game called Pok a Tok, which Aztecs also played but instead called Tlachtli. Over time around 1,300 courts have been discovered around Central America, as well as rubber balls found perfectly preserved.
Similar to other early games mentioned, the aim of the game was for two teams to get the ball to the opposition’s end of the court while also keeping the ball in the air and not using their hands.
Interestingly, the game had religious overtones, and members of the losing team could end up being sacrificed!
While football is often associated with England, the game can also be traced back to 15th century Scotland, notably 1424, when King James I outlawed the game due to the disruption it caused. During the years that followed, multiple Acts of Parliament were also passed trying to ban the sport from being played.
Football during this period was highly violent. In 1601, a court case recorded that two brothers were shot and killed over a disagreement in a game.
Not only is Scotland’s links to the game verified by these historical documents, but the oldest existing football in the world was discovered in the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle and dates back to around 1540.
As well as this, in 1824, the first soccer club in the world was formed in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, so Scotland has several significant links to the sport.
As was the case in Scotland, King Henry IV issued a decree to ban soccer from being played during the middle ages in England, which is where the earliest records of English football stem from.
“Foteball” as it was called at the time was a controversial game, though, despite the rulings from the royal family, it continued to be played and enjoyed by the people.
However, it is widely acknowledged that there is no linear history to the game of soccer that we know today, and that the origins of the game certainly predate England during the middle ages. There were many different ancient games which all contributed to the much-loved game we know today.
The modern rules of association football are based on the mid-19th century efforts to standardize the different forms of the game being played in the public schools of England at the time, though the history of English football can be traced back to at least the eighth century CE.
While football was fast becoming popular across 19th century England, the lack of universally-accepted rules led to rules being inconsistently followed and enforced - so one rule adhered to at one end of the country was not even known at the other end. This inevitably made it difficult for two teams from different places to play each other, as they would have different versions of the rules, and this led to widespread confusion and disagreement.
The Cambridge Rules – 1848
In an attempt to tackle this issue, in 1848 teachers from various schools in the south of England came together in Trinity College, Cambridge University, to create a common football rulebook.
The process was slow, but eventually, the teaches agreed on a selection of rules published in a document which was named the ‘Cambridge Rules.’
The Cambridge rules were significant for agreeing on the following:
- Players could not run with the ball in their hands
- A goal would be awarded when kicked between the flags and under the string
- Throw-ins could be taken with one hand only
- Every player on the same team should wear the same color cap
While the Cambridge Rules didn’t ban handling of the ball completely, they did reduce the amount the ball could be handled, and thus were significant in shaping the game as we know it today.
The Sheffield Rules – 1858
Ten years later, it became apparent that what had happened in the south of England was also happening in the north: different schools and universities had been playing the game but were employing different sets of rules.
So in 1858 in Sheffield, England, clubs and teachers came together once again to agree upon a common set of rules, which became known as the “Sheffield Rules.”
The Sheffield Rules were significant because:
- They defined the rules around a throw-in
- They reduced how much physical contact was permitted between players.
Again, handling of the ball was not completely banned, but the above rules were important for shaping the modern game of football, and these rules quickly spread across the north of England and became widely adopted by clubs, schools, and universities.
Over the next decade, these rules were revised and altered repeatedly, though a significant change came in 1863 when the offside rule was introduced. The defining moment however came in 1867 when all players, other than the goalkeeper, were banned from touching the ball with their hands.
The Sheffield Rules are also thought to have created the ideas of corners and free-kicks for fouls, as well as the development of forward positions and the position of the goalkeeper.
The Football Association Established – 1863
While the Cambridge and Sheffield rules provided some common ground between football players all over the UK, there was still no nationwide agreement over the rules of the game.
This meant that depending on whether you were in the North or South you’d usually be abiding by different sets of rules; in the North, industrial club teams were playing under the Sheffield Rules, and in the South, public schools were playing by the Cambridge Rules.
In October 1863, 11 club and school representatives gathered to create one universal set of rules for teams across Britain to follow. Not only this, but they also created a governing body for soccer nationwide.
So, between October and December of that year, over the course of 6 meetings, the Sheffield and Cambridge Rules were compared and revised, and a new set of rules were drafted in their place.
This wasn’t as straightforward as you’d expect, as different clubs and individuals had various ideas about how the game should be played, and more importantly, how they’d been playing it.
These clashes in opinion resulted in several schools and clubs walking away from the meetings as they disagreed with the new proposals. One of the main conflicts was based on the debate of whether or not the ball should be handled, which is pretty crazy when you consider how this is the defining rule of football.
Some schools disagreed with not being allowed to handle the ball, and as a result, they broke away from the project and went on to establish the game that we now know as rugby.
On 19 December 1863, the first game was played under the new rules between Morley’s Barnes team and their neighbors, Richmond.
Despite this, it still took quite a while for the complete adoption of the Football Association rules throughout Britain. For a while, these rules and the Sheffield rules were used alongside each other, until 1877, when the Sheffield Football Association decided to accept the Football Association rules after the association adopted Sheffield’s throw-in rule.
Globalization of the Game
After the establishment of the Football Association and a universally-accepted set of rules, the game of soccer quickly spread from the schools and industrial clubs of England to countries all around the globe.
Soon the need for an international governing body was recognized, and FIFA became the main governing body of soccer in 1904.
Today FIFA comprises 211 national associations, each of whom are also members of one of the six regional confederations of the world: Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania, and South America.
The purpose of FIFA is to promote football globally, facilitate access to the game, and advocate transparency and fair play. The organization is perhaps most famous for the FIFA World Cup, which began in 1930 and was followed by the Women’s World Cup some decades later in 1991.
Since its conception, the FIFA World Cup has taken place every four years, except for 1942 and 1946, which were canceled due to World War II.
The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympics, with fans tuning in from nearly every country in the world.
190–200 national teams compete in qualifying tournaments for a place in the finals, which is held every four years. The finals involve 32 national teams and last for four weeks.
Due to the popularity and scale of the World Cup, FIFA tournaments attract huge revenue from sponsorship. In 2018, FIFA generated revenues of over US $4.6 billion, ending the 2015–2018 cycle with a net positive of US $1.2 billion, and cash reserves of over US $2.7 billion.
So, was soccer invented in the ancient Han dynasty of China, or during ancient Greek civilization?
Or was it in 1863, when a Football Association was established in England?
The truth is, soccer does not have a classical, linear history, and fragments of the game can be found throughout human history, with each ancient ball game inspiring the next, all leading up to the establishment of the game in 19th-century England.
However, there’s no doubt that the sport as we know it today is owed to that fateful meeting of clubs and schools in October 1863, as without this, there would be no universally-accepted set of rules to play by, and it’s unlikely the game would have reached the success and scale that it has today without the creation of the Football Association.