Long before Cristiano Ronaldo was traded to Manchester United for 15 million euros, groups of people all over the world were playing a game fairly similar to the one we know today.
History of Soccer
It seems that moving a ball of some sort into a designated goal area is an ancient human endeavor.
Although the rules and materials look somewhat different from what we know now as soccer, ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Roman cultures all played some form of soccer (more commonly known globally as football) as far back as the second century BC.
Many indigenous groups all around the world played ball-focused sports, some of which had similarities with the modern sport and some which developed into other sports, such as lacrosse.
In medieval times and before, the balls were usually made from the inflated organs of mammals. Modern balls made of rubber were invented in 1855 by Charles Goodyear. He invented and patented vulcanized rubber, which was the material used to make the first true spherical ball. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company were named in honor of him, although he did not actually manufacture tires in his lifetime.
The ball of today with hexagons and pentagons didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s and first appeared in the World Cup in 1970. So compared with the long history of the game, these balls are relatively new.
Beginnings in Britain
In Medieval Europe and Britain in particular, the modern game developed, although it was much more violent and open than what we see on ESPN. Many games took place on festival days and were played with large mobs between neighboring towns or villages, and the “goal” would be a geographic location, like perhaps the opponents’ church.
As such, this game could be fairly disruptive. And while it’s almost inconceivable given the popularity of the game today—and the amount of money spent on the game around the globe—there have been multiple attempts to ban the game of soccer throughout history.
In 1314, King Edward II of England banned soccer in London after merchants in London complained about the game and the impact it had on their businesses.
The next two Edwards followed suit, as well. In both 1349 and 1477, King Edward III and King Edward IV banned soccer because it was a distraction from archery, which was a compulsive activity for every Englishman because it was so useful in battle.
When Soccer Got Forbidden
The Football Act 1424 in Scotland stated that the act of playing soccer was forbidden by King James I, and it was punishable by a fine. It was enforced for several centuries but then fell into disuse before being officially repealed in 1906.
Famed Henry VIII of England attempted to ban soccer in 1540, even though he apparently loved the game so much that he had his personal shoemaker craft what might be the first known pair of soccer boots. However, since the game was so rough, he attempted to ban it because it frequently led to riots.
Women were banned from playing English and Scottish Football League grounds in 1921, a ban that was only lifted in the 1970s. Women around the world continue to face outright bans in some places, and there has been a very public fight for pay equality in women’s soccer, especially in the United States.
From Mobs to Matches
The upper-class boarding schools in Britain were integral in forming soccer into a cohesive game. These so-called public schools, which are analogous to private schools in other countries, organized the games within their schools and eventually between the schools, as well. William Horman, who was the headmaster at both Eton and Winchester, discussed soccer in his 1519 writing entitled “Vulgaria.”
In 1660, writings emerged that describe goals and distinct playing fields, and Francis Willughby’s “Book of Games” even included a diagram of the soccer field. These games developed independently at the different public schools as a form of exercise and competition for the students, but as rail travel became more accessible in the 1840s, the schools began to organize games against each other.
However, since the schools had different rules, it was common for the first half of the game to be played by the rules established by the home team and the second half of the game to be played by the away team’s rules. It was also around this time that the offside rules as they exist today began to emerge.
Only For Upper-Class
Since soccer at this time was played almost exclusively in these public schools, it was reserved for the upper class.
The working class simply didn’t have the time or the energy to engage in recreational sports, but when the Factory Act of 1850 passed, child labor was significantly reduced in the working class. Thus, those children had more times to participate in games, which led to a wider spread of the game throughout Great Britain.
Given this uptick in interest, the Football Association was formed in 1863. It is the oldest soccer association in the world and oversees professional and amateur soccer in England and the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man.
Since soccer was developed in a structured way in England and Europe more broadly, soccer traveled with colonialism. As European countries ventured forth and the explorers and sailors spread to distant lands, they brought the game with them to South America, North America, Canada, India, and various African and Asian countries.
The Formation of FIFA
Although England was the epicenter of football, European countries had also a growing interest in the sport, and much like England developed a governing body in the Football Association, the European countries needed a governing body for their inter-nation matches.
In fact, England’s FA was originally tasked with establishing this international body, but eventually, representatives from France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland came together to form the Fédération Internationale de Football Association in 1904, and this association still continues today.
Gradually, additional countries, including England, joined FIFA, and in 1930, the first FIFA World Cup was held and has been held every four years since, only pausing in 1942 and ’46 due to World War II. In 1991, 61 years after the first World Cup, the first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in China.
In the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, 32 nations are slated to compete, and in the women’s 2023 FIFA World Cup, the highest number of countries will participate to date (also 32).
With FIFA wanting to keep the monopoly on massive football tournaments, the sport’s inclusion in what is perhaps the most prestigious sporting competition is complicated.
In the first modern Olympic Games, before the first FIFA World Cup, soccer wasn’t included at all as a sport, and in the next few iterations of the Olympics, soccer games were held in a casual manner. From 1908 through to 1929, limited soccer tournaments were included in the Olympic Games.
After FIFA decided to put the first World Cup in 1930, football was taken off of the roster of the Olympic Games held in 1932 in Los Angeles, California. However, it returned in 1936 and was heavily dominated by Eastern European countries until 1984.
In this critical year, the International Olympic Committee made a change that allowed professional athletes to compete in the Olympic Games, as opposed to exclusively amateur athletes previously (although this was not strictly adhered to by all countries and contributed to why Eastern Europe’s state-sponsored “amateurs” played at a much higher level than players from other countries).
However, FIFA didn’t want the Olympics to rival the World Cup and has since penned several deals which restrict the players who are eligible to play in the Olympics, including banning players from the strongest federations and imposing an age limit for male competitors. In 1992, only players who were under age 23 were eligible, and in 1996, the rule was updated to allow for three players who are aged 23 and above per squad.
There are no such restrictions placed on the women’s Olympic soccer teams when women’s soccer joined the Olympic Games in 1996.
The State of Soccer
Globally, soccer has the largest piece of the market share pie. This game rakes in almost $28 billion in revenues per annum, which is almost as much as the combined $32 billion in revenue of all other US sports, Formula 1, tennis, and golf.
In 2021, Real Madrid was deemed the most valuable football club in the world for the third year in a row.
A stunning 3.5 billion people (almost half of Earth’s population!) self-identify as soccer fans, and there are some 250 million who play the game in an organized fashion either as children or adults.
It’s safe to say that soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and despite its long history, it seems that soccer is here to stay, so grab a ball and have a kick-about!