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The History Of Soccer: Learn How The Modern Game Originated

Soccer, football – whatever you prefer to call it, is a game of passion. It stirs the soul and evokes the strongest of emotions amongst even the toughest of crowds. Unlike the game itself, the history of soccer hasn’t always been so beautiful.

Played by over 250 million people today, soccer looked a lot different just a few hundred years ago. The ball game of soccer is constantly changing and evolving with the introduction of new rules that shape the modern game as we know it.

World Cup Soccer: History, Finals, ...
World Cup Soccer: History, Finals, Winners & Host Nations

To an outsider, the aim of the modern game seems simple – kick the ball into the opposition’s net more times than they do, and you’ll walk off the soccer field victorious. But the team game is a lot more complicated than that.

Let’s take a journey back in time to truly appreciate the game. We’ll start at the very beginning of soccer. Back in ancient times, when a loss could sometimes have very dire consequences.

When And Where Was Soccer Invented?

The Ancient History of Soccer

So how did soccer originate? The history of soccer dates back over 2000 years ago. It’s a little unclear when soccer was invented. However, the Aztecs may have invented the earliest version of the game.

The Aztec soccer game was known as ‘Tchatali,’ where the aim was to get the ball through a stone hoop…without using your hands. The ball game had deep religious and political ties, with the ball symbolizing the sun. It’s believed that the losing team’s captain would often be sacrificed to the gods.

Another version of the game has also been documented as early as 206 BC during the Han Dynasty in China. This game was called ‘Cuju’ or ‘Tsu Chu’ and was played to keep the Chinese military in shape.

This ancient form of soccer involved one set of bamboo goalposts erected in the middle of the field. The ball was made from rubber and filled with fur or feathers. The aim was to get this ball through a small opening in the net.

Again, without using the hands. Teams often consisted of 12-16 players, and women were sometimes involved.

ancient history of soccer

Who Invented Football

Early versions of football dating back to ancient times have been recorded worldwide. Archaeological remnants point to the Ancient Greeks playing Episkyros and Aboriginal Australians playing very similar games. It seems that even back then, soccer truly was a global game.

Soccer (also known as folk football) began to develop in modern Europe during the medieval period. The pig’s bladder would be kicked from one landmark to another in England around the 9th century. During some periods of British history, the ball game was even considered a nuisance and banned.

Now, let’s fast forward to the game of soccer that we currently watch on our television screens at home or at the local bar. We can thank the British for this lively game of soccer that millions of people are involved in today.

Which Country Invented Modern Soccer

The modern history of soccer began in the 19th century when the game first became popular at universities and schools. Back then, the ball game was somewhat a mixture of rugby football and soccer and was simply referred to as ‘football.’ It was unruly and chaotic due to the variation in rules that different teams adhered to.

A notable difference was that some schools allowed players to carry the ball while others primarily used their feet.

One group of students quickly became fed-up with the madness that ensued whenever they tried to play an inter-school match, what they decided to do next changed the history of soccer forever. They looked to formalize a set of rules.

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In 1848, eight undergraduates from four public schools came together in Cambridge to draft up rules that everyone could follow. They agreed on a set of eleven rules that they then nailed to a tree in Parker’s Piece (an ample green space where teams would meet to play). These eleven laws famously became known as the Cambridge Rules.

The Cambridge Rules

One significant rule that has carried over into the modern game today was that carrying the ball was mostly disallowed. This rule is likely what started the divergence of ‘soccer’ and ‘rugby’ which eventually became separate sports.

University of Oxford students are said to be responsible for coining the word ‘soccer.’ They would use the slang word ‘rugger’ to describe the form of football that was mostly used with the hands, which eventually became known as rugby. ‘Assoccer’ was slang for association football which they used to define the game mostly used with the feet.

This term was eventually shortened to just soccer, which is now commonly used, especially in the United States.

cambridge rules 1848

A few years later, in 1855, in the town of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, the makings of the first amateur soccer club were quietly brewing in the background. Bred from a love of sports and a willingness to stay fit over the winter months, Sheffield Cricket Club members started to organize friendly ‘kickabouts.’

These informal ball games at Sheffield would often pit ‘married players against singles’ or ‘professionals versus the rest.’ Sheffield FC officially became recognized as an official club in 1857, when organizers William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick decided to add a new level of formality to their casual ‘kickabouts.’

Sheffield FC is now recognized as the oldest soccer club in the world.

The Sheffield Rules

A year later, in 1858, the club created a set of rules that distinguished the Sheffield laws of the game and acted as a guide for other teams to follow. These were the first set of rules established by a football club, and they quickly spread. The Sheffield rules soon became the most popular form of the modern game in North England.

Five years later, in 1863, the first-ever Football Association was formed in London. Once again, there was an attempt to unify the laws of the game. This newly enacted Football Association (the FA today) used the Cambridge Rules as the basis for their set of rules – much to Sheffield’s frustration.

This new set of laws became known as the ‘London Rules.’ They struggled to gain a foothold over the more popular Sheffield game that teams continued to play nationwide for many years.

The Sheffield game was initially more ruthless than the more civil, London-based game. It allowed pushing and charging, but hacking and tripping were forbidden. In 1867, the first tournament – the Youdan Cup – was played under Sheffield Rules.

Between 1863 and 1877, the Football Association (FA) and Sheffield laws co-existed. However, London-based teams willingly adopted the FA rules while Northern teams played under Sheffield’s rules.

sheffield football club

Merging Rules With London

For years, tension existed between the two organizations. Finally, in 1877, Sheffield eventually caved when the London football association refused to play Sheffield teams unless they adopted the London Rules. At this time, however, the two versions of soccer had already become quite similar.

Rule-merging and innovative changes continued throughout the 70s. As a result, both the Cambridge and Sheffield rules have played an essential role in the history of soccer. Sheffield rules, for example, introduced the concept of corners, free-kicks for fouls, and heading of the ball.

Sheffield continued its streak of soccer innovations when in 1878, it held the first floodlit match at Bramall Lane.

Twelve thousand people paid sixpence each to watch the ‘blues’ play the ‘reds’ in a landmark event forever stamped in Sheffield and soccer history. Captaining the sides were brothers Charles and William Clegg.

William’s team won the exhibition match that night, but Charles Clegg became a prominent name in soccer history.

charles clegg playing for sheffield wednesday

Charles Clegg

Charles played for Sheffield FC and played in the first international soccer match for England against Scotland in 1872. After hanging up his soccer boots years later, he became the first chairman of the Football Association. In 1923, he also became the association’s president, holding both titles until his death in 1937.

Charles Clegg remains a prominent figure in soccer history. In 1927, he notably became the first knighted soccer player for his services to the ball game.

Sheffield Football Club may have been the first association soccer club globally, but which club can claim the title of being the first professional soccer club? The answer to that is Notts County – founded in 1862 in Nottingham, England.

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Oldest Professional Club In The History Of Soccer

Sporting a playing kit of black and white stripes, the ‘Magpies’ of Notts County are officially known as the oldest professional team in the game’s history.

Initially, the club didn’t play soccer at all, but instead, they played a game of their invention. However, once the Football Association was formed, they switched to playing soccer. In 1888, they became one of the founding members of the first-ever football league.

notts county football club 1894 fa cup winning team

The First Football League

Twelve teams made up this ground-breaking league, but Notts County’s involvement was short-lived.

Unfortunately, their title of being the oldest professional soccer club didn’t guarantee them any future success. Apart from that first year upon the league’s foundation, Notts County has never been promoted to the Premier Division, or EPL as it is commonly referred to. Notts County finished eleventh place out of twelve that season.

They were also at the receiving end of the highest-scoring game in the league, recording a 9-1 loss to Aston Villa. By now, you’ve hopefully up to speed on the origin of soccer in the United Kingdom. But when did the modern game of soccer arrive in the United States, you may ask?

The History Of Soccer In America

There is some evidence that Native American Indians (knowns as the Algonquians) played some version of soccer along the Massachusetts Coast. According to soccer history historians, Pasuckuakohowog was almost identical to the folk football that was also being played in Europe at that time, in which the ball was kicked through goals.

The word Pasuckuakohowog translates as “playing ball with your feet.”

But the modern game, shaped by the English, was said to have entered America through New Orleans in 1850 – brought in by European immigrants. This would have been shortly after the time that the Cambridge rules were first drafted.

Today, soccer flourishes in the United States, with around 12 million players aged six and up. Major League Soccer is the highest level of professional men’s soccer in the United States. Twenty-five clubs are based in the United States, and three are based in Canada.

History Of Soccer In America

Major Soccer League

As part of the successful bid to host the World Cup in 1994,  Major League Soccer was founded in 1993. The MLS is one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States, with an average attendance of over 20,000 per game.

In addition, there have been several developments that have helped Major League Soccer become profitable, including the development of purpose-built stadiums, the ‘designated player rule,’ and the new agreements with national TV stations.

The success of the United States Womens’ National Team (USWNT) is mainly responsible for the popularity and growth of the game throughout America in recent years. Incredibly, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final was the most-watched soccer game in the history of the United States!

But the women’s soccer game and the USWNT’s success didn’t come easily. Women players and teams had to overcome some vast setbacks along the way – including one that lasted decades. In 19th century England, women’s soccer was incredibly popular.

One match even attracted an electrifying 53,000 spectators! However, this spectacular turnout bruised the ego of the Football Association, who banned women from entering the pitch for 50 years!

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FIFA History

Shortly after the game had been established domestically in England, national associations began to spring up worldwide. There were only a few national football teams in the late 19th century. The first national teams of England and Scotland first played each other in the 1870s.

In 1903, French journalist Robert Guérin saw an opening to create an international governing body that would oversee the international side of soccer. So he set his plan into action.

On May 21, 1904, Guérin invited seven nations to meet in Paris. These seven nations all had one common goal in mind – to unify national soccer associations worldwide.

These seven nations are now regarded as the founding members of the Federation Internationale de Football Association or FIFA. These founding nations included Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Since that day in Paris, FIFA has grown to become the world’s most powerful sporting organization. FIFA continues to be driven by its mission statement, ‘Develop the Game, Touch the World, Build a Better Future.

They certainly have touched every corner of the world and continue to globalize the game. FIFA now boasts 211 member associations. These member nations are divided into six different confederations, which represent each continent.

Today, FIFA is best known for hosting the World Cup for both men and women. The FIFA World Cup is currently the most-watched international sporting event globally. Only rivaled only by the Olympic Games, claiming a silver medal in viewing numbers. Since the inaugural World Cup in 1930, it has been played every four years. (except for 1942 and 1946, when it was not held due to World War 2).

Eight national football teams have won the World Cup. In addition to winning the World Cup five times, Brazil is the only nation to play in every tournament.

So, exactly how many people watch the FIFA World Cup? Well, a whopping 3.5 billion people worldwide watched the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Almost a ten percent increase in viewing numbers than the previous World Cup in Brazil. The game of modern football is only getting more and more popular.

Olympic Games

The Summer Olympic Games introduced soccer as an exhibition sport in 1900 and 1904. Except for the 1932 Los Angeles Games, the sport has been held at every modern Olympic Games since. It was never played in the ancient games as it’s a team sport and all events were individual sports only.

Throughout history, FIFA has used various means to restrict elite players’ participation in the men’s football tournament to avoid competition with the World Cup. Women’s football was only introduced in 1996 into the Olympic Games program.

The FIFA Awards

In 2016, the FIFA awards were introduced to the world for the first time. The Best FIFA Football Awards recognize the best male and female players and coaches in soccer and are presented annually. Christiano Ronaldo won the best FIFA player for men in its inaugural year, while Carli Lloyd won the best women’s player.

But FIFA doesn’t only host World Cups and hold prestigious awards ceremonies. They also have a pretty significant stake in deciding the laws of the game.

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Current Laws Of The Game

FIFA themselves don’t control the laws of soccer. But the organization does have a considerable say on the matter throughout the history of soccer. The International Football Association Board governs the current rules and regulations of soccer (IFAB).

The IFAB is a separate body from FIFA, but FIFA does have considerable involvement in law changes within the game, holding 50 percent of the voting power for proposed changes.

The IFAB is represented by the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and FIFA. Each association has one vote each, while FIFA has four votes.

Each year, the organization holds a meeting – known as the Annual General Meeting or AGM. This meeting is essential to the IFAB, whose mission is to preserve the game’s laws, respecting soccer’s traditions. At these meetings, new laws – that will benefit the game – are proposed and decided upon.

However, to pass a new soccer law, it must achieve three-quarters of the votes of its representative associations. Most years see subtle and sometimes major changes implemented in the game of soccer. However, the seventeen ‘overarching’ laws of the game remain primarily unchanged.

The 17 Rules Of Soccer

The 17 laws of soccer cover basic rules that are followed for almost every international and professional match worldwide. But, of course, these laws are often modified for younger, amateur teams. These fundamental laws cover everything from the field of play (size and surface) to the size and weight of the ball. Law 12, for example, covers fouls and misconducts.

In addition, it defines the rules for direct and indirect free kicks and covers the FIFA rules for goal celebrations. While most of these rules remain unchanged year after year, occasionally, there are significant changes.

Introduced in 1992, one of the most popular changes to date has been the pass-back rule in soccer’s history. The 1990 World Cup instigated the change with teams taking advantage of them, then-current rules to help them win the game. Teams would continuously pass the ball back to their goalkeeper, who would, in turn, pick the ball up to slow down the game.

As a result, many spectators complained that the World Cup soccer had become dull to watch. As a result, the back-pass rule was passed in 1992. This new law meant that goalkeepers could no longer pick up a deliberate pass-back from a teammate.

Consequently, soccer goalies are now expected to be much better with their feet at all levels of the game. Teammates can still pass the ball back to their goalkeeper, but they must not use any part of their hand to control it.

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Video Assistant Referee (VAR)

Another significant law change has been the recent introduction of VAR or the Video Assistant Referee. VAR is where a team of three people, including a main video assistant referee, watch live footage of a match and give real-time feedback to the referee on the soccer pitch.

It is used to review four major decisions: goals and the violations that precede them, red cards, penalties, and cases of mistaken identity when giving a yellow or red card.

To help ensure the correct call is made during a match, the VAR team can request a review, or the main referee can request a review after a decision has been made.

The A-league in Australia was the first league in the world to trial VAR. It eventually went international for the first time in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. The incorporation of VAR has been a contentious issue.

Some people claim that VAR is ruining soccer, killing the excitement by delaying the game and eliminating the spontaneity of split-second decisions. Soccer isn’t the same when you have to wait 5 minutes after a goal is scored for it to be allowed.

Others, including FIFA, have argued that it helps ensure the correct call is made. According to FIFA, VAR made the right call 99.3 percent of the time at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, compared to the 95 percent of correct calls made by referees without VAR.

But for this controversial issue, we’ll let you be the judge! With amendments continuously made to the game, many future changes will likely become important milestones in soccer history.

the future of soccer

The Future of Soccer

At the time of writing (2022), FIFA is currently experimenting with new rule changes. There trialing them at the Future of Football Cup youth tournament. The trial involves reducing game time to 30-minute halves (rather than the standard 45) and stopping the clock (Association Football) whenever the ball goes out of play.

They are also trialing throw-ins with the feet instead of the hands and automatic five-minute suspensions for yellow cards. These trials normally occur at Youth World Cups.

In recent decades, association football has become much more of a tactical game. Now opponents and managers focus on playing to their team’s strengths while exploiting their rival’s weaknesses. With improved technology and extensive knowledge of the game, the game will likely look quite different in just a few years.

But what exactly will that look like? Only time will tell. What seems more concrete, however, is FIFA’s current vision for the future. FIFA’s goal is to truly globalize soccer by growing the game in a sustainable and equal way. With FIFA’s world dominance, they are likely to make this happen.

It is truly astonishing to see how the game has evolved over the past few centuries. From a group of Cambridge students who nailed their first set of rules to a tree to the powerful international governing body of FIFA today – the game has certainly come a long way. The history of soccer is undoubtedly one that takes us on an emotional journey – just like the game itself.

What To Read Next On The History Of Soccer?

Our website now has over 300 articles about the personalities, the football clubs, the equipment, and the stadiums that have made this great game.  Just scroll to the top of this page and type a keyword of your interest.

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