I’ve played soccer my whole life but never sat down to think about the sport’s origination. I knew that soccer had to date back at least 1,000 years, but what I found really surprised me.
So, how far back does the history of soccer date back?
The history of soccer is believed to date back over 2,000 years to China and that the sport developed from ancient games. These games were often violent, with the losers potentially losing their lives. Over time these games evolved into the game of soccer that we know today.
As we know it, the game of soccer is the most popular sport in the world and is played for recreational purposes. However, this wasn’t always the case…
Ancient Soccer History
Cuju (kickball), one of the earliest games that involved kicking a ball, took place in China between 206 B.C. – 220 A.D. The game centered around a round ball stuffed with fur and a goal constructed from bamboo and cloth. The game did not permit the use of hands.
Cuju later spread to Japan and adopted the name ‘kemari‘. Kemari used a stuffed ball that was larger than the Chinese version. This game involved 2-12 players who played on a field marked by a cherry, maple, willow and pine tree.
Rumors of games between cuju and kemari players go back as early as 50 B.C. Some evidence suggests that games go as far back as Egypt during the time of Baqet III (2500 B.C.). Other than images depicted on his tome, little information exists about these games.
A version played in Ancient Greece used a ball full of hair that consisted of strips of leather. The Middle Ages saw the use of the first known balls filled with air. Mexico and Central America first used the rubber ball in an ancient ballgame that sometimes involved human sacrifice.
Soccer History in Europe
During the middle ages a rise in the popularity of locally invented games spread through Europe. In England, a legendary game took place that involved kicking the severed head of a Danish prince.
These were violent games where death wasn’t uncommon. Few images of these games exist today. Two of these images, located in England, show two young men running with a ball in the air, while the other depicts a group of men with a ball on the ground.
Despite the popularity of these violent games, King Edward III of England passed laws in 1331 to prohibit the games. In 1424 King James I of Scotland also passed a similar law banning the game.
In Italy, the people played a game known as Calcio. It took place on a field of sand that involved two large teams of 27+ players. Giovanni de’ Bardi, a Florentine count, published the official rules in 1580. Players used both hands and feet to pass and control the ball.
Players scored goals by throwing the ball into the netting at the end of the field. There were referees, linesmen and a field master to control the 50-minute matches. Interest in Calcio waned in the early 17th century.
However, in 1930 the Kingdom of Italy, under Mussolini, reorganized the game. Today, three matches take place each year in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence in the 3rd week of June as part of the San Giovanni Day celebration.
England once again legalized football in 1605, but the modern game would not evolve for quite some time. There was little distinction between football and rugby at the time with variations in ball size, number of players, field length and length of matches.
The game became popular and the schools Rugby and Eton were at the forefront. Rugby’s rules allowed the players to pick up the ball with their hands to advance it, while Eton required players to use their feet, laying the foundation for modern-day football.
Further standardization of rules took place in 1848 at a meeting in Cambridge, England. These rules were known as the Cambridge Rules. At the time all the schools, colleges and universities used these rules.
The Football Association formed fifteen years later, standardizing the size and weight of the ball, as well as splitting the rules into two separate games, association football and rugby.
History of International Football
The first international football match took place Mar. 5, 1870 between England and Scotland at The Oval in London. The match ended in a draw.
This was the first game in a series of four that was organized by the Football Association, the only national football organization at the time.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) does not recognize these matches but the Scotsman newspaper referred to them as international.
The first FIFA recognized match took place Nov. 30, 1872, between Scotland and England and ended in a 0-0 draw. The match was played under Football Association (FA) rules.
It was during this period that a split formed between those who supported professionalism and those who wanted an amateur game.
Clubs in Scotland and Northern England generally supported a professional game, while the working class could not miss work to play football.
The middle class of Southern England supported the values of amateur play. To prevent a split, the FA legalized football clubs to hire professional players.
History of the Football League
In 1888, Aston Villa’s Director, William McGregor, created the Football League. The twelve-team league was led by the clubs that had supported professionalism.
No clubs from the South or London initially joined the league. Preston North End won the first Football League championship. They swept all 22 fixtures (games) and went on to win the FA Cup.
In 1892, the Football League added a Division Two; Woolwich and London joined this league in 1893. By 1898 both divisions had expanded to 18 clubs. Clubs from the South did poorly compared to the established teams.
The 1904 Woolwich Arsenal became the first club from London to earn a promotion to the First Division.
Several other teams from London and Southern England joined the league, making it a true national league. Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur quickly saw promotion to the First Division and by 1921 Tottenham had won two FA Cups.
History of Football: The Olympics and FIFA
Football made its Olympic debut in the 1900 games in Paris, France. Two demonstration matches occurred between three teams.
No medals were awarded at the games but the International Olympic Committee currently credits Great Britain, France and Belgium with the gold, silver and bronze medals respectively.
FIFA was founded in Paris, France May 21, 1904, at the headquarters of the Union Francaise de Sports Athletiques. Representatives from France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were present.
It intended to include England but the English FA, under president Lord Kinnaird, declined to participate in the formation of an international federation.
It was at this meeting that the first FIFA Statutes came into existence. These statutes made it so players could not play for multiple national associations at the same time; they also recognized the suspensions of players from member associations.
Matches followed the Football Association’s Laws of the Game. Each national association had to pay an annual fee. Article 9 also stipulated that FIFA would take over the organization of any international competition.
History of the World Cup
With the success of football in the Olympic Games, FIFA wanted to conduct their own world championship. In May of 1928, after a proposal from the Executive Committee, the FIFA Congress decided they would organize the World Cup.
Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden submitted bids to host the first games. Uruguay was the early favorite after winning the gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.
With its national association willing to cover all of the costs including travel and accommodations for the participating teams, Uruguay was chosen to host FIFA’s first World Cup.
With an economic crisis enveloping Europe, plans for the first Cup did not go well. Participation in the event included a long sea journey for the players, which left them unavailable for their clubs for two months.
Only four European teams: France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia made the journey to Buenos Aires.
As a new era began in the world of football, the inaugural Cup proved a resounding success. Despite the success, the organizers wished that more than four European teams participated. The anger of Uruguay led to the team’s decision not to defend its title in the following World Cup.
Italy would host the second FIFA World Cup in 1934. Qualifying rounds established the 16 finalists. This Cup did not include group play, only knockout rounds, sending Brazil and Argentina home after just one match each.
Once again the host team won. Italy defeated Czechoslovakia 2 -1 in extra time.
Four years later France was awarded the tournament, but things did not go as planned. Austria didn’t participate, Uruguay still boycotted the games and Argentina withdrew.
To make up for the lack of participation, Cuba and the Dutch Indies joined a field of only 15 nations. Italy successfully defended their title, stopping the string of home victories.
World War II halted the games until the FIFA Congress met in July of 1946. Selected at that meeting, Brazil would host the World Cup in 1949 (later postponed to 1950).
History of Soccer in The United States
Immigrants from England, Scotland and Germany introduced football to the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. The FA rules first saw use in a match between Rutgers University and Princeton University in Nov. 1869.
The American Football Association (AFA) was created in 1884 and was based in the New York / New Jersey area. In the 1920s confusion between ‘association football’ and ‘American football’ led to the use of the term ‘soccer’.
The American Amateur Football Association (AAFA) was created in October 1911 and was a rival to the AFA. Both organizations sought recognition from FIFA in 1913 as the national governing body.
The battle between the AFA and AAFA (currently the United States Soccer Federation – USSF) eventually led to the loss of popularity in the U.S. It was some time before Soccer regained attention in the 1960s.
Brazilian star, Pele, signed for the New York Cosmos in 1975. His reputation along with the 1984 Summer Olympics attracted more interest in the game.
The large Olympic crowds prompted FIFA to hold the 1994 World Cup in the United States. To go along with the United States’ successful bid to hold the World Cup, Major League Soccer (MLS) launched in 1993 and is currently run by the USSF.