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Passing It On

A History of Soccer

Soccer (which most of the world calls football except the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and Australia) is known as much for its outbursts of violence as its showcase event, the World Cup. Arguably the most popular game on earth, its internal controlling body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), boasts more members than the UN (Goldblatt 2008). Bigger than baseball, American football, and basketball combined, soccer is the most watched sporting event in the world, even more than the Olympics. In many parts of the world, soccer is a ubiquitous, powerful presence. The futures of several regimes, specifically in Latin America, have been significantly influenced by a soccer match. For example, rioting after a 1969 game between El Salvador and Honduras sparked a five day war, known as the “Football War” between the countries in which several people died and hundreds were hospitalized. The sport also aggravated tensions at the beginning of the Yugoslavia Wars in the 1990s when a match between Dinmo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade collapsed into mass rioting in March 1990. Soccer has also unified, empowered, and encouraged both individuals and countries. Soccer, it would seem, is not just a game, but a global event with wide political, national, and economic influence.

Prehistory of Soccer

Soccer has ancient origins. Indeed, for thousands of years, almost every culture has enjoyed kicking a ball. Early balls included human heads, cow bladders, and stitched-up cloth. The Munich Ethnological Museum exhibit in Germany includes a Chinese text from approximately 50 B.C. that describes physical education exercises called tsu chu, which consist of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair into a small net—and,like in soccer today, the use of hands was prohibited (Goldblatt 2008). The Japanese had a similar game, called kemari, dating from about A.D. 300. Still played today, kemari is less energetic than Chinese tsu chu and, consequently, it was seen as more dignified and ceremonious--it may have even been part of ancient fertility rites or used to mark particularly seasons of the year. Reminiscent of today’s hackey sack game, kemari players attempted to pass the ball to one another without letting the ball touch the ground (Goldblatt 2008).

Because the art of controlling the ball with the feet was extremely difficult and required technique and talent, the ancient Greeks and Romans used their versions of soccer to sharpen the skills of warriors for battle. The Greeks played episkyros (“game”) while the Romans played Harpastum (“ball”), which was played with a small ball on a rectangular field with opposing teams. The object was to get the ball over the other team’s boundary lines, using trickery and hands if necessary. The games were very popular and spectators tended to be rather vocally involved in the proceedings.The early Olympic games in Rome included Harpastum, consisting of 27 men on each side who competed so enthusiastically that once nearly two-thirds of them had to be hospitalized after a fifty-minute game (Dunning 1999).

In preindustrialized England soccer was often a “mob” game of village against village and lacking written rules. It was played through the streets across fields, hedges, fences, and streams where almost anything was allowed. Nearly everyone played soccer, including dignitaries and noblemen such as Oliver Cromwell, Walter Scott, and several kings. Despite its immense popularity, soccer was viewed by some to be lower in status than more “wealthy” endeavors, such as equestrian sports (Murray 1996). It began to be routinely condemned for its threat to the soul through its unruliness and its threat to life and property through its violence. King Edward I of England (1307-1327) was so appalled at the noise and violence of the games that he passed laws threatening imprisonment to anyone caught playing soccer. Both King Henry IV (1367-1413) and Henry VIII (1491-1547) banned soccer, and Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) threatened to jail soccer players for a week followed by church penance. Laws, however, could not stop the games and, in 1681, soccer was reinstated and soared in popularity (Glanville 1979).

Britain As the Birthplace of Modern Soccer

While soccer in its various forms was played for centuries around the world, the main source of modern soccer codes and rules lies in Britain. Around the mid-eighteenthtcentury, as Britain moved from an agrarian to industrial society, soccer began to change. Instead of playing in open fields of the countryside, the game was adapted to play in the narrow streets and on the hard surfaces of new cities. As city infrastructure and improvements in transportations (such as the steam engine) grew, it became possible for teams to play one another across the country. The expanding scope of the game created a need for uniform rules and a national governing body (Murray 1996).

The first attempt to standardize the rules of soccer were the Cambridge Rules, first drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848. Representatives from Cambridge, Eton Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, and Shrewsbury schools attended, but the proposed rules were not uniformly adopted (Murray 1996). It was not until the Football Association (FA) was formed on Oct 26th, 1863 in London, that the different associations would agree on a set of fundamental rules that would allow the varied teams to play with each other (Glanville 1979).

During the meetings, however, a representative from Blackheath, withdrew his club over the removal of two draft rules--the first allowed for the running of the ball in hand and the second allowed for the obstructing of such a run by “hacking” (kicking an opponent in the shins), tripping, and holding. Other English rugby orientated football clubs followed his lead and did not join the FA, later forming the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Die-hard rugby teams wanted no part in a game that didn’t allow shin kicking, tripping, and carrying the ball (Dunning 1999). The eleven remaining clubs, under the charge of Ebenezer Cobb Morley, ratified the original thirteen rules of the game, and modern soccer was born under the name “Association Football” to distinguish it from the rugby style of game. It is not a coincidence that as the industrial revolution and concomitant infrastructure quickly spread throughout Great Britain, soccer as an organized sport was established there before it was in most other countries. The standardization of soccer was also part of a larger national effort to recognize and organize all sports in Great Britain, such as mountaineering, track and field, swimming, sailing, etc. (Murray 1996).

Rules standardization evolved as the century continued. Initially there were no descriptions of the ball until eight years after the original FA meeting in 1863 when the size and weight of the ball finally became official. Prior to that, the type of ball was simply agreed upon by the two teams playing--such as in the match between London and Sheffield in 1866, the official first game where the duration was set at one and a half hours. It was also around this time that the term “soccer” came into use as a British slang word. Oxford and Cambridge students would use “association football” to distinguish it from rugby. Some attribute the term to Oxford student Charles Brown who liked to shorten words such as “brekker” for breakfast or “rugger” for rugby or “soccer” for assoc, a shortened form of “association” (Glanville 1979). While the term “soccer” is clearly a British coinage, Americans were the first to use the term in full effect to distinguish it from football. The English rarely used the term “soccer,” preferring instead to call it football.

The rules of the game are currently determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which was formed in 1886 and consists of the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales, the Irish Football Association, and FIFA, which currently has over 204 members in every part of the world. Each UK association has one vote and FIFA has four, creating a type of checks and balance of power While IFAB creates the laws, FIFA is responsible for organizing and governing major international tournaments according to laws created by the IFAB (FIFA.com). FIFA was formed in 1904 partly in response to the Olympic movement and even today it battles the IOC to manage soccer games during the Olympics. When the Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1932, soccer was excluded due to the United States’ low interest and the constant bickering over the status of amateur players between FIFA and IOC. Due to this exclusion, FIFA created a tournament independent from the Olympics called the World Cup and held the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay. Soccer would later be included in every subsequent Olympics, except for the 1940 and 1944 Olympics which were cancelled due to the political tensions of WWII.

Soccer in the United States

The United States was the first British colony to start playing soccer-style games as far back as the original Jamestown settlement in 1607. and collegiate play gained momentum after the Civil War. Soccer in the U.S. centered on contests played by the major colleges and universities in the Northeast (Goldblatt 2008). For example, the freshman and sophomore classes at Harvard had instituted an annual intramural soccer contest in 1827 played on the first Monday of the new school year, titled “Bloody Monday.” The Oneida Soccer Club formed in Boston in 1862 and is cited as the first soccer club to consist of regular roster of players, in contrast to pickup games commonly played at the time, and consisted of players from fairly elite public schools (Dunning 1999)The first intercollegiate game was between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used rules which allowed for 25 players and moving the ball with all parts of the body, including the hands. The first team to score six points won. Interestingly, this game also is generally recognized not only as the first soccer game but also as the first football (gridiron) game.

Soccer vs. Football in the United States

A hybrid soccer game known as the “Boston Game” was soon taken up by Yale, Columbia, and Cornell, while Harvard became more interested in the rugby form of the game. A fateful event which would forever change American soccer took place in 1875 when Harvard solidly beat Yale in a game with special concessionary rules which included both goals (resembling soccer-like goals) and tries (later touchdowns). Yale and Princeton (who had been watching) were impressed with Harvard’s rugby team and followed suit. In 1876 Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association using rugby rules. Other colleges soon followed and the end of 1876 saw the rapid decline of collegiate soccer in the US (Goldblatt 2008). Walter Camp, the father of American Football, would continue to modify rugby rules that would eventually create modern American football.

Road to the World Cup

Soccer in the U.S. did not disappear altogether. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, soccer was a regional game played almost exclusively by immigrants and working-class communities while upper classes looked to rugby and (American) football. However, baseball was soon seen as the American pastime and immigrants would attempt to Americanize themselves by playing baseball rather than soccer, which was seen as a game of foreigners. It wasn’t until the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis that U.S. interest in soccer that soccer in the United States gained some momentum by virtue of being part of the growing Olympic movement (Goldblatt 2008). However, when FIFA formed in 1904 (due in part to the Olympic movement), the U.S .was left out because it lacked a truly national organization association. However, in 1913 FIFA accepted the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), which a shortened form of the previously known United States Soccer Football Association. The addition of soccer as an official medal sport for the 1908 Olympics also led to increased U.S. interest in international competition as did the establishment of the first American Soccer League in 1921, which created a team that had enough prestige to compete with European players. In 1930, the U.S. participated in the first FIFA World Cup in Uruguay, where the team, according to a Uruguayan newspaper, “really surprised the experts” by its better than mediocre showing. The U.S. continued to participate in the World Cup with a surprise win over heavily favored England in 1950. The sport of soccer in the U.S. continued to spread from its strong ethnic base to mainstream America during the 1960s when drastic social changes gave rise to spectator sports and the advent of television (Dunning 1999).

New Golden Era of Soccer

While U.S. interest in soccer continued to grow, the USSF felt hosting the World Cup would encourage even more interest. Yet many felt that the World Cup would never sell in the U.S. because of the lack of overall success and reputation at the professional level. However, when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics, the soccer competition was the most attended competition in the games. In addition, American Paul Caligiuri’s game-winning “shot heard around the world” in a 1989 World Cup qualifying game boded well for the United States soccer reputation. When the United States Women National Team (USWNT) won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, it seemed as if FIFA officials were at last impressed with the potential of the U.S. market. With the encouragement of the USSF, the United States was awarded the World Cup in 1994 on the condition that it establish a first division professional league (Murray 1996).

The 1994 World Cup was the world’s biggest sporting event, drawing 715.1 million viewers for the 2006 final. (FIFA.com). In 1999, the FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in the United States for the first time, which brought a new level of international popularity to women’s soccer. In the final match of the Cup, which also boasted an all-time-high attendance record for a woman’s sporting event, American Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal in a penalty shoot against China and joyously waved her jersey in a bra-revealing celebration.

Soccer is a sport that both unites and divides across global political, religious, and economic differences. More than just a sport, soccer is a cultural phenomenon in which national dramas and individual athletic rivalries are played out. Often a metaphor for cultural and social concerns, soccer paradoxically fuels divisiveness, fierce nationalism, and violence, while at the same time sparking the imagination and passion of millions of players of fans.

-- Posted June 26, 2008


Dunning, Eric. 1999. Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sports, Violence, and Civilization. London, UK: Routledge.

FIFA.com. 2008.

Glanville, Brian. 1979. A Book of Soccer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Goldblatt, David. 2008. The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Murray, Bill. 1996. The World’s Game: A History of Soccer. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.