Soccer is one of the oldest organized sports still played today, and as such, it has one of the most colorful evolutions in organized sports, as well. Played on every continent, soccer (or football, as it is known outside of the United States) has one of the most long-standing and loyal audiences in sports history.
What is the history of soccer? Soccer was invented thousands of years ago in ancient China, though it spread quickly to Rome, Greece, and other parts of Asia. A similar game evolved in Central America around the same period. Soccer was transformed into an organized sport by the English and gained popularity across the world.
Although it declined somewhat in popularity in the United States with the rise of American football, soccer has nevertheless remained a mainstay sport around the world. Keep reading to find out more about the history of soccer and how it evolved globally.
How Long Has Soccer Been Around?
Old, outdated forms of soccer have been around for over 2,000 years, dating back to ancient China. In China, this game was known as cuju, or “kick the ball with foot.” The football in ancient China was typically a leather skin that had been stuffed with feathers.
Cuju was popularly played as a form of fitness training for Chinese soldiers to encourage both cooperation and increase stamina. It was also popular amongst the Chinese royalty, who enjoyed having demonstration matches performed at the imperial palace. There was even a particular type of courtyard designed for the playing of cuju called Ju Chang, with six crescent-shaped goals in place.
In ancient Greece, the Spartans played a similar soccer-like game called episkyros or “commonball.” However, it bore more resemblance to rugby because of the gratuitous violence involved and the use of hands as well as feet to transport the ball.
Taking inspiration from the Grecians, the ancient Romans too adopted soccer in the form of harpastum. Like episkyros, harpastum often devolved into bloody fistfights and wrestling matches and is considerably more violent than modern soccer.
When and Where Was Soccer First Invented?
Because ball games across the world evolved at roughly the same periods, it is difficult for archaeologists to determine precisely where soccer originated. It is widely accepted that China first developed the sport and that the trade through the Silk Road likely spread soccer (along with several other games and sports, such as polo and Chinese chess) to the rest of the civilized world.
Via Asian trade, a version of this game eventually ended up in medieval cities and villages where it often devolved into brawls and rampages, forcing it to be banned repeatedly throughout history for inciting town riots and violence.
At this point in history, there was a significant divergence between the major ball games being played in Asia and Europe—soccer became concentrated on footwork and agility, while handball or rugby became focused on forceful plays and physical domination over one’s opponent.
The modern version of soccer originated in England, with the nation transforming soccer into a uniform sport with organized rules in 1863. These rules continued to evolve throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with new rules being added up into the late 20th century until soccer reached its contemporary form. The sport continues to evolve at a quick pace despite its long history.
Central American Soccer
In Central America, cultures such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas all played ball games that are similar enough to soccer that they could be considered proto-versions of the sport. Rather than using soccer to train their soldiers, as was common in China and Japan, the cultures of ancient Central America incorporated ball games into religious and political matters.
Because all of these different ball games evolved across the world during the same time in a part of history where accurate and preserved written records are particularly scarce, it is hard to identify exactly where soccer originated in the world. The one thing that isn’t hard to identify is how much power it holds in popular culture on a global scale.
How Was Soccer Played When It First Started?
There were two significant schools of soccer being played when it first originated in human society:
- In the East in Asian countries such as China and Japan, soccer-like games were used for both recreation and to help train warriors in agility, endurance, and full-body strength.
- In the West in Central and South America, soccer games were a ceremonial part of human society, with the losing team in Tlachli (or Aztec soccer) being sacrificed to the gods. In other South American cultures, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Either way, soccer back in the day was a serious business.
One way that ancient soccer deviates from the modern form is that different rules depended on what country you played in. Every ancient civilization had different rules for soccer about the use of hands, how violent a person could get in taking the ball away from another person, what constituted a goal, and so on.
The violence itself in ancient forms of soccer is another thing that separates it from modern soccer. While rugby has retained some of the violent origins of its proto sports, soccer has become mostly a non-contact affair where players inflicting physical damage to each other is heavily discouraged.
Early Soccer in Europe
The forms of soccer that existed in medieval Europe as a result of trade with the Orient were very different than any type of soccer we recognize today. The severed heads of one’s enemies were a popular choice of ball early in the sport, for one thing.
Lacking sufficient Viking heads, medieval towns and villages soon converted over to using a pig’s bladder filled with dried peas. This “football” was kicked, snatched, and gouged, and punched from one end of the village to the other to a designated landmark, often causing a huge ruckus in the process. This led to forms of soccer being banned in many places around England and Europe in the 9th century.
Medieval Soccer’s Link to Modern Hooliganism
Weirdly enough, this violent side of soccer (while discouraged on the field with penalty cards) persists in England’s football culture in the form of hooliganism, which—like medieval soccer—has resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.
Attempts at stadium security to decrease hooligan violence in soccer stadiums led to an increase in street violence and riots associated with soccer in England, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the danger of overcrowded English soccer stadiums and hooliganism persisted into the late 20th century and culminated with the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, which ultimately crushed and killed 96 people and injured 766 others.
Newgate Prison and the Birth of Soccer
One notorious origin of the sport of modern soccer is Newgate Prison in London. In the early 1800s, a primitive form of modern soccer was invented in the prison yard by the inmates to allow them to play a game that wouldn’t necessitate the use of their hands. Since most of these prisoners were being held for theft and had their hands taken off at the wrist for the crime, there weren’t many extra hands in the place to go around. (Source: Steel Soccer)
The Advent of Soccer in England
Despite its violent origins and its sometimes chaotic influence on the local populace, soccer continued to maintain its popularity throughout the 9th-18th centuries, when clubs centered around playing the game started to become more complex and rules were required to facilitate games between different regions with different regional rules.
Modern English Soccer
After its bad-boy reputation in the medieval period, soccer began to become more organized in the 18th and 19th centuries, with football being organized into an official league in 1863 after players at Cambridge sat down to try and organize the rules in the late 1840s (these rules would come to be known as the “Cambridge Rules”).
In the modern version of soccer, there were several rules made that changed the face of the sport:
- No “hacking,” or attempting to kick an opponent to the ground (this practice is thought to originate in shin-kicking games that were popularly played at the same time that the sport of soccer evolved in Britain)
- No handling (use of hands)
- Kick-ins when the ball goes out of play
- Harrow rules for dimensions of the goal and field
- Offside with four or fewer opponents between the player and the opponent’s goal
During this time, the football club handling soccer at Cambridge was going head-to-head with those players who were attempting to aggregate the rules of the game at the Football Association. The major differences of opinion between the two soccer clubs were in the allowance of hacking and handling, with Cambridge firmly opposed and the FA firmly in support.
While Cambridge went on to argue with the FA about these rules into the 1870s, the nonviolent nature of Cambridge’s revisions to the rules caught on quickly, and the rules against hacking and handling became mainstream in soccer across the world. In the process, the rougher rules from full-contact soccer ended up incorporated into rugby instead.
Modern American Soccer
Unlike Europe, modern soccer didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1920s, where it enjoyed a massive surge of popularity it had not seen before or since. While many people more readily associate American football or baseball with American sports, there was a period in American history where soccer was king.
The primary influence in soccer’s American popularity during this period was a large influx of European immigrants that arrived in the early part of the twentieth century, bringing soccer right along with them. In 1921, the American Soccer League (ASL) was formed, and the sport enjoyed immense popularity, particularly in the Northeast.
However, the sport somewhat fell apart in 1931 when the ASL disintegrated in the wake of vicious infighting amongst its players, organizers, and world officials in other leagues of the sport. This league would be reestablished later as the North American Soccer League (NASL), but organizers would fail to gain traction in the American psyche for decades.
Americans mostly lost interest in soccer overall until the mid-seventies, when Pele’s addition to the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL) put soccer on the map of mainstream American pop culture. During this historical period, soccer experienced a brief revival in America.
American Soccer in the 1990s and Beyond
After the retirement of Pele in the late 1970s, Americans lost interest in soccer again (all the while it was gaining even more popularity overseas as an international sport). The NASL collapsed in the eighties to be replaced by Major League Soccer (MLS).
American interest in soccer in the 21st century continues to waver, but American teams have gotten progressively higher in the rankings of the World Cup throughout the 2000s.
While it is far from America’s most popular sport, an increased focus on international competition has made it more popular as a spectator sport. It also remains one of the largest organized sports that children are enrolled in today.
History of the Soccer Ball
The soccer ball may have had its early beginnings as a flap of leather sewn around a pig bladder or even a Viking’s severed head, but the equipment involved in the sport has changed dramatically over the centuries to what it has become in the modern ara.
While many of the earliest soccer balls were entirely makeshift affairs, the construction of the ball has become refined to the point that balls must be certified by a significant soccer club such as FIFA to qualify as competition-level equipment.
Although its construction has changed significantly over the past few centuries, the basic design of a soccer ball has mostly remained the same. These are the fundamental components that make up the soccer ball:
- Bladder: A callback to its medieval origins where an actual inflated animal bladder was used instead, the bladder in a modern soccer ball is a hollow sack that holds air and gives the soccer ball its bounce when inflated. The materials used in modern soccer ball bladders are typically either latex or butyl. There are also soccer balls filled with foam to limit their bounce that are intended for indoor use.
- Lining: The lining of a soccer ball typically consists of several cotton sheathes that surround the bladder and act as a buffer between the bladder and the outer covering. The better constructed a soccer ball is and the higher quality it is, the more linings it is likely to contain. Professional-grade soccer balls often include four separate linings to cushion them and account for the higher force being used by professional players.
- Covering: In the past, soccer balls were created with leather coverings, but a significant disadvantage of this design was that natural leather is absorbent. After many hours of absorbing dew and other moisture from the field, a leather soccer ball becomes unnaturally heavy and unwieldy to play with. To combat this problem, old leather soccer ball coverings were eventually replaced with synthetic leather constructed out of polyurethane.
The basic design of the soccer ball may not have changed much since the Dark Ages, but the materials used to build them have changed plenty. Almost all of the materials used in modern soccer balls are artificial or synthetic materials. This is because synthetic materials are often more durable and uniform than natural ones.
The History of Soccer Ball Panels
Have you noticed the pattern of hexagonal and pentagonal panels that are seen on most modern soccer balls? This complex shape is known in the mathematical world as a truncated icosahedron. (Source: Math World) Each panel of the soccer ball covering is stitched together to form a design that is better able to hold its round shape.
A major problem in older soccer ball construction before the modern age is that the panels used to stitch the soccer ball coverings were often irregular in shape and built flat before sewing together—this led to soccer balls which would inevitably lose their shape or become flattened on certain sides, affecting the aerodynamics of the ball. Truncated icosahedron balls were designed to combat that.
The point of a truncated icosahedron design is to spread the impact force of a kick to the ball across the entire covering, meaning (in theory) the ball would be kicked straighter and with more direct force. Not only does this cause the ball to behave more predictably in play, but it also contributes to durability since the ball can hold its original shape longer. (Source: Stack Exchange)
The inventor of the modern 32-paneled soccer ball is the footballer Eigil Nielsen. Nielsen was the goalkeeper for the national soccer team of Denmark. However, this was during a period of history where professional athletes couldn’t make a living on the sport, so Nielsen also became a sports psychologist and a designer of shoes and leather products. He also went on to become the founder of Select Sport, the company which would eventually go on to create the modern soccer ball. (Source: Select Sport)
Alternative Soccer Ball Designs
There are have been attempts in modern times to go back to a different style of soccer ball coverings, and these alternative designs have made their way into international competitions. As recently as 2006 and 2010, balls with a different panel design known as “Teamgeist” (Team Spirit) and “Jabulani” balls were used in international competition.
These balls garnered criticism from players for several reasons:
- They performed unpredictably in wet or rainy play conditions.
- They were considered to have a lighter feel than traditional soccer balls, making them more challenging to play with.
- The balls are known to change direction in unpredictable ways and have unexpected flight patterns in midair.
An overarching theme of the criticism of Teamgeist balls, Jabulani balls, and the newest balls designed for the World Cup in 2018, the Telstar 18 by Adidas, is that these lighter balls favor soccer players who shoot the ball versus those who pass or act as a goalie.
Despite ongoing criticism of these newer ball designs, efforts have continued to incorporate them into international matches, leading sports critics and athletes alike to speculate that this shift in soccer ball design is a deliberate attempt to subtly shift the mechanics of the game itself towards long-distance kicks and other aerial plays.
FIFA and the History of the World Cup
In modern history, the ruling body that governs the game of soccer is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA. This organization governs not just traditional soccer, but also beach soccer and e-football/e-soccer. FIFA is also the international organization that founded the FIFA World Cup (known colloquially as just the World Cup).
The first inaugural World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930, soon after the rise of soccer’s popularity in the Americas in the 1920s. Thirteen nations took place in the competition, with Uruguay winning the cup after eighteen matches. From 1930 on, the World Cup would go on to be a global event every four years with popularity rivaling the Olympic Games.
Who Are the Top Players in Soccer History?
Soccer has had no shortage of phenomenal players in the past several hundred years it has been an organized international sport. While top-rated European soccer players were first tempted into American leagues with the promise of well-paid work in manufacturing factories, the soccer stars of today perform for tens of thousands of fans, and millions of dollars a year.
Some of the top players are famous for relentless scoring, and others for being the kind of goalkeepers that the opponent is terrified to go up against, but the one thing they all have in common is consistent excellence in the sport.
The best soccer player of the year may vary from season to season, but these greats will always have a place in soccer history:
- Michel Platini
- Mia Hamm
- Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane
- Lev “Black Spider” Yashin
- Brigit Prinz
- Lionel “Leo” Messi
- Homare Sawa
- Roberto Baggio
- Abby Wambach
- Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)
- Sun Wen
- Marco Van Basten
While they originate from around the world, the one thing that all these men and women have in common is that they are the best in their respective leagues. Many have achieved prominence either as crucial players in the Soccer World Cup or as Olympic athletes. The fact that these footballers hail from across the globe is a testament to soccer’s international influence.
Ask ten soccer fans who the best soccer player in the world is, and you’re likely to get ten different answers, but the men and women on this list have more than proved their worthiness on the pitch.
Weird Soccer History
Across the world, soccer games have been running long enough that no shortage of strange things have occurred as a result of or during famous soccer matches. Here are some of the weirdest historical facts involving the sport:
- By the early 1900s, modernized soccer had become so popular across Europe that a temporary truce was called on Boxing Day during WWI in 1914 so that English and German soldiers could celebrate Christmas and play soccer together.
- Fans at Stamford Bridge are forbidden from bringing celery into the soccer stadium and face a lifetime ban for possessing it as a result of fans throwing celery—among other things—onto the pitch as an example of hooliganism.
- The HFS Loans League at Congleton attempted to dedicate a moment’s silence to their oldest fan in the 1962/63 season, only to have said fan walk out onto the pitch during the memorial (spoiler alert: somebody in public relations screwed up).
- In 1967, a ceasefire was called in the Nigerian civil war so that both sides could watch the famous soccer player Pele play an exhibition match. While the civil war did resume forty-eight hours later, this ceasefire marks the second time in history that a major military conflict was deferred to play a game of soccer.
Soccer has been a part of major international events for hundreds of years, and the prevalence of the World Cup—even in soccer-ambivalent America—goes to show that the fanatical nature of the love for this sport runs deep.
Soccer Is Still Changing
From its grisly origins as a game of sacrifice and town riots to the highly regulated game that it is today, soccer has been and continues to be one of the most dynamic sports on the planet. Multiple times in history, this sport has managed to bring foes together in a display of skill that is difficult to replicate in any other game.
Despite its chaotic past, soccer continues to grow in popularity and maintain its position as one of the most revered sports in human culture across the world.
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