The sport of soccer has been formed and shaped throughout its history into the modern-day version that we know and love today. Soccer has been around in different versions for hundreds of years and has a uniquely fascinating history.
In this article, I will take you through key moments in the history of soccer and show you how soccer developed into the global phenomenon we see today.
The history of soccer can trace its roots back almost 2000 years to ancient China. Since then, archaeologists have found evidence of early versions of soccer in records on every continent. But it was the British who transformed soccer into the game we play today when they formalized a set of rules in the 19th Century.
Since then, soccer has transcended borders, smoothed over differences, and united people around a common passion.
Soccer has played a central role in several major geopolitical events in modern history and even acted as a proxy battlefield upon which women’s rights have been won.
It’s a fascinating history, and I’m excited to share it with you!
The Origins of Soccer
It has been estimated that over half of the world population tuned in to watch the last soccer World Cup. So, it is safe to say that people all around the world love soccer.
Football, as fans know the sport outside the United States, is quite possibly the most popular sport ever.
But how did it all start?
The history of soccer begins over 2,000 years ago in China, with a game known as Cuju. Historians believe Cuju to be the earliest version of soccer ever played. Cuju literally translates to “kickball,” and the game involved kicking a small leather ball into a small hole about 15 inches wide.
The first record of Cuju dates back to about 255 BC when the historical record of the Han Dynasty mentioned the game. Though some historians believe the game existed in ancient China much earlier, perhaps even as early as 5,000 BC.
Cuju was also likely the first-ever version of soccer to spread internationally. According to other Han Dynasty records, a Cuju game was played between China and Japan in approximately 50 BC.
You could argue that this was the first international soccer game.
Have a look at this video of a modern-day Cuju player.
Cuju isn’t the only contender for the first version of soccer in the history of the game.
Other ancient cultures also played similar ball games. However, their rules often didn’t resemble modern soccer quite as closely as Tsu Chu does. (For more information on the other countries that lay claim to the origins of soccer, have a look at my article – How soccer was invented.)
Early British Soccer
Although, Cuju in China can be regarded as a precursor to soccer as we know it today. There is no doubt that the British took the various versions of the game and shaped them into the sport we know today.
The earliest known version of British soccer is dated to the 8th Century, when British soldiers invented the game by kicking around the severed head of a Danish prince they had defeated in battle.
The news of this victory game spread throughout eastern England, and others began to replicate the brutal, violent game. It was not uncommon at the time for people to die playing soccer.
As a result, the King of England (King Edward III) decided to pass a law in 1331 banning soccer in England. By doing so, he hoped to bring an end to the deadly pastime.
Of course, as anyone with a small child knows, banning something just adds to its attraction.
Consequently, subsequent laws were passed in 1424 and 1572 banning the sport in Scotland and mandating that anyone caught playing soccer would be sentenced to a week in jail.
It would be almost 275 years before soccer became legalized again in England.
Soccer in the New World Influences British Soccer
Around the same time soccer was re-legalized in England at the beginning of the 17th Century, British colonists were beginning to establish themselves in the “New World.”
When the colonists arrived in Jamestown, they observed the native people playing a kicking game called Pasuckuakohowog.
Based on colonist Roger Williams’s descriptions, the locals played the game on the beach with goals set one mile apart. Up to 500 players played at a time, and while the game did often result in bodily injury, it was not meant to be as brutal as the English version.
Some historians believe that this game was played in place of war so that various groups could blow off steam without actually fighting each other. After the game, both teams would enjoy a feast together as a sign of friendship.
It is possible that this slightly less violent version of soccer impressed the British as they seem to have incorporated some aspects of the field construction into modern soccer.
The Soccer Century
Modern soccer really kicked off (pun intended) in the 1800s when working-class communities discovered they could use the game to keep kids out of trouble and help maintain physical fitness.
Over the second half of the 19th Century, players and officials in England transformed the sport into its modern incarnation.
The standardization of soccer truly began in 1815 with the establishment of a set of rules at Eton College.
From that point in soccer history, a lot happened in a relatively short space of time:
- In 1849, a standardized set of rules was adopted by the colleges and universities of Britain. These rules are known as the Cambridge Rules.
- In 1857, the first league club was established in Sheffield, England. Sheffield FC is still in existence today, and FIFA recognizes it as the world’s oldest soccer club.
- In 1860, TSV München became the first organized soccer club in Germany; it would eventually become the basis for FC Bayern München, though TSV München 1860 still exists in Germany’s 3rd League.
- In 1863, The first American soccer league, Oneida Football Club, was established in Boston, Massachusetts.
- Also in 1863, the Football Association was formed in England on October 26, 1863, when eleven teams came together to agree upon rules and format.
- In 1869, the Football Association amended its Laws of the Game to include rules forbidding players from using their hands unless they were acting as a goalie.
The Football Association’s Influence on Modern Soccer
The formation of the Football Association in 1863 was instrumental in the development of modern soccer.
It set a precedent for how soccer would be organized and governed from then on.
It also marked the moment when soccer and rugby became two separate sports. Up until that point, soccer had essentially been a combination of the two sports.
The Laws of the Game
Shortly after its establishment, the Football Association published the first edition of Laws of the Game, which stipulated how the game should be played and included regulations that were intended to ensure the safety of soccer players.
Examples of the safety “laws” included a rule outlawing the use of “projecting nails” on the bottom of a player’s shoes. Modern cleats had not yet been invented, so many players wore steel-toe boots instead.
You can imagine how many broken bones that likely caused!
The International Football Association Board had adopted these laws by 1886, and FIFA also adopted the rules in 1904.
By the end of the 19th Century, soccer clubs from other countries began to join the Football Association.
The clubs that joined the Football Association were considered association clubs, and games, or matches, played following the Football Association rules were association matches.
Today, the Football Association manages the British Olympic soccer team.
The 19th Century
The establishment of the Football Association in 1863 was the biggest thing to happen to soccer during the “soccer century.”
A few more important things happened during these years that were significant moments in the history of soccer.
- In 1871, the Football Association held its first Cup tournament.
- In 1872, the first international association match took place in Glasgow between the English and Scottish teams. The game ended in a 0-0 draw.
- In 1884, the American Football Association was established in Newark, NJ.
- In 1886, teams representing the US and Canada played the first international soccer game to take place in North America.
- In 1888, the Football Association included penalty kicks in the Laws of the Game.
- Also, in 1888, the English Football League was established. Today, it manages the English Premier and National League clubs.
- In 1892, the Scottish Football Association recorded the first all-women soccer match.
- In 1895, The British Ladies’ Football Club became the first known women’s soccer club.
In the span of a single century, soccer transformed from an ancient and sometimes brutal sport into a polite match enjoyed by the gentry and laboring classes alike.
In addition to transcending class divisions, soccer was also starting to transcend international borders.
Soccer Becomes a Global Phenomenon
At the beginning of the 20th Century, soccer was poised to quickly become a global phenomenon, and it did.
Among the important developments that fostered the international spread of soccer was the establishment of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1904.
FIFA quickly became the premier governing body for international soccer clubs, games, and tournaments. Today, FIFA has 209 members and is feasibly the most illustrious sports organization in the world.
Olympic Soccer History
The globalization of soccer accelerated rapidly after these first exhibition games were played.
1900 – France
France, Belgium, and England played the initial games at the 1900 Summer Olympics in France.
The top soccer clubs from each nation represented their country, and the games were intended to demonstrate the sport. Although historians recognize England as the champions, the Olympic officials didn’t award any medals to the teams.
1904 – United States
A total of four matches were played, and North American teams dominated. Canada, represented by the Galt Football Club, won gold. The US, represented by the Christian Brothers College and St. Rose Parish teams, won silver and bronze medals, respectively.
1908 – Great Britain
It was not until the 1908 Olympics that individual countries formed national teams for the competition.
This moment in soccer history is when FIFA officially began to oversee the games. To this day, FIFA refuses to recognize the 1900 and 1904 Olympic tournaments as “official” tournaments.
Soccer on Boxing Day: Women Take to the Field
Women’s soccer became popular during the First World War.
The women had no official league, so they simply played games to raise money for wounded soldiers and help maintain national morale.
To keep up a longstanding British tradition of watching soccer on Boxing Day(the day after Christmas day), women rose to fill in the gap left behind by the men at war.
On December 26, 1917, a women’s club from Ireland matched up with a lady’s club from England on a pitch in Belfast. Over 20,000 people came to watch, making it a wildly underrated international soccer success.
It was such a popular game that the ladies decided to do it again in 1920.
The 1920 Boxing Day match took place in Liverpool between women’s teams from England and France. The game hosted 53,000 soccer fans, while another 14,000 watched from outside the stadium. The most successful women’s club in England, the Dick Kerr Ladies Club, prevailed.
By the end of WWI, women’s soccer teams were drawing larger crowds than men’s events. But this success was not allowed to last long.
The Ban of Women’s Soccer
Upon the return of men’s soccer events after the war, the Football Association banned women from using their pitches. They justified this decision by stating, “the game of soccer is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
In retaliation, the women formed the English Ladies Football Association and started using Rugby pitches/fields as well.
1930 – The First Soccer World Cup
In 1932, Soccer was dropped from the Summer Olympics itinerary in Los Angeles due to budget concerns arising from the Great Depression. Shortly before this happened, FIFA decided to organize an international tournament in 1930.
It selected Uruguay to host the tournament due to the country’s recent back-to-back gold-medal wins at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics.
The first World Cup was not well attended. Due to the economic depression gripping most of the world, some of Football’s powerhouses, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, were absent.
The United States, on the other hand, performed better at the 1930 World Cup than it has at any subsequent World Club, despite being defeated by Argentina in the semi-finals.
On July 30, 1930, the final match drew a crowd of 93,000, who watched as Uruguay and Argentina hashed out a close game. In the end, Uruguay won the first-ever World Cup 4-2.
Soccer Becomes Geopolitical
When Berlin hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics, soccer was no longer just a well-loved sport; it was becoming influential in a geopolitical sense. That power was palpable leading up to the Berlin Games.
Using Soccer to Make Money
Germany, the host of the 1936 Olympic Games, had made sure that soccer would be included in the itinerary because they knew that its popularity equated to packed stadiums, which, of course, meant more money.
But people were threatening to boycott the games in reaction to the political reality in Germany at the time.
However, the economic power of soccer was so undeniable that the German authorities temporarily removed all propaganda that would have been visible to Olympic visitors.
However, it wasn’t that easy to fool the people.
During the tournament, the participants lodged all nature of snubs at the hosts. The British players, for example, disobeyed instructions to give the salute before their matches.
Then Germany was defeated by Norway in a shocking 2-0 victory in front of the top German officials.
After being kicked out by the underdog, the Germans turned their hopes to Austria, a nation with a similar political drive. But they were sanctimoniously beaten by Italy in the final match.
The Berlin Games were undoubtedly not the propaganda stunt the Germans had hoped for. Still, they were among the first examples of how countries would come to wield soccer as a power play on the geopolitical stage.
Soccer During World War Two
During the Second World War, people continued to use soccer as a morale booster and a geopolitical device.
Though the Football Association suspended organized soccer matches in September of 1939, the armed forces did rely on soccer to help the war efforts.
The armed forces permitted soccer matches to help soldiers blow off steam and stay in shape during the quiet parts of the war.
Footballers and the War Efforts
Many famous British soccer players played an active role in recruitment for the military. Before the suspension of official games, the Bolton Wanderers’ team Captain, Harry Goslin, gave an impassioned speech encouraging people to join the military.
The next day, all of the members of the Bolton Wanderers joined the Royal Artillery.
Throughout the war, 80 British players died in combat, including Harry Goslin. Several hundred more were injured or taken prisoner by enemy forces.
The armed forces also relied on professional soccer players to put on exhibition matches designed to increase international comradery among the Allied Forces.
The Football Association Services XI was a special assignment explicitly designed for these purposes.
In 1944, the FA Services XI were sent to both Paris and Brussels to play exhibition matches.
The match against the Belgian team took place so soon after the Liberation of Belgium that the stadium had to be cleared of mines before the audience arrived.
These games, no matter how frivolous they might have seemed, played an important geopolitical role.
They were celebrations meant to encourage Allied troops to keep going and keep up the good work. They were also meant as snubs to the Axis powers.
Women Rise Again
Following the cancelation of men’s soccer for the duration of the Second World War, women once again stepped onto the fields to help boost national morale and raise money for the war efforts.
This time, since women were entering the workforce to support the war industry, factories became the organizing body for women’s soccer teams.
Multiple aviation companies in the United Kingdom had women’s teams, and they engaged in friendly matches.
However, the Football Association still banned women from using fields, so these matches were necessarily a bit more informal than the women’s WWI games.
Soccer Around the Middle of the Twentieth Century
During the Cold War, soccer’s role as a geopolitical prop became a little more pronounced.
Soccer teams fought a number of battles between communism and capitalism on the field. Both sides were keenly aware that soccer was just one more way to prove their supremacy.
The Red Army Football Team
In 1945, the Dynamo Soccer Team, based in Moscow, took off for a goodwill tour of the United Kingdom.
According to historian Robert Edelman, this trip was the Soviet Union’s first attempt to use sports for diplomatic purposes.
In addition to later victories at the Olympics, the success of this trip made soccer Stalin’s favorite diplomatic tool and the most popular game in the USSR. The trend caught on in other Soviet states.
The goal was to distract from human rights violations and spread propaganda about the dominance of Soviet athletes, both at home and abroad.
Leaders in the Soviet Union seemed to think that the presence of accomplished sports teams would disprove accusations of glaring inequities within their societies from abroad while instilling a sense of pride within their citizens.
This approach was also attempted in the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic (GDR/DDR), otherwise known as East Germany.
East vs. West: The Divide German Soccer Team
In 1951, the GDR established the German Football Association of the GDR and applied for FIFA membership. Naturally, West Germany protested this, but FIFA granted the GDR membership anyway.
The two German teams would rarely face each other more than a few times before reunification in 1990. Still, each of these games was hard-fought due to a natural rivalry between the two Germanys.
The fact that many people saw Germany as the battleground of the Cold War gave this rivalry a unique intensity.
The East German national team was hardly as successful as their West German counterpart. Still, they did have a few notable successes at the Olympics.
Notably, in 1964, the East beat the West and qualified for participation in the Summer Olympics hosted by Tokyo, where they went on to earn a bronze medal. They eventually secured a Gold medal in Montreal in 1976
During their 38-year existence, they only qualified for a single World Cup in 1974.
Incidentally, East Germany beat West Germany in the first round 1-0. However, the West German team went on to win all the other games in their group and the title.
Needless to say, this fueled the politically charged rivalry even more.
When Germany was reunified in 1990, the East German team dissolved.
Chicago Sting v. Cuba
In 1978, just sixteen years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chicago Sting, a professional US league team affiliated with the North American Soccer League, traveled to Cuba to play a friendly match in Havana at the Pedro Marrero Stadium.
The trip was extraordinary for a few reasons:
- It came out of the blue. The authorities sprung the trip on the team. With little time to prepare for the trip, the team had little idea what they were getting into or how to prepare for a diplomatic sporting event.
- Cuba was unfamiliar and uncertain. It was the first time an American sports team had visited Cuba since 1959, when the Rochester Red Wings (a baseball team) were chased out of the country after the team was shot at during the game.
- Ulterior motives? What the team experienced was nothing short of a propaganda trip. Cuba hosted the team in a hotel that had been a Sheraton before the embargo and taken on a bus tour of the island. One team member remembers being told not to speak negatively about Cuba while on the tour because the buses were bugged. Another reported spotting a missile from his hotel window.
The Sting lost 2-0, and the Cubans returned to Chicago a year later, drawing a much smaller crowd.
Despite this event’s historical significance, the US media did not report the match in Cuba or the return game. Still, the US government must have had a vested interest in the trip since they allowed it to happen in the first place.
Women Soccer Players Get Their Chance
In 1971, the ban on women’s soccer that the Football Association had put into place in England way back in 1921 was finally lifted.
The Woman’s Football Association (WFA), established in 1969, was formally recognized in the United Kingdom.
Across the Ocean, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1972 similarly freed up women in the United States and mandated that equal funding be given to women’s sports at colleges and universities.
As a result, more women could go to college with a soccer scholarship in the United States. It quickly became the most common women’s sport at American Universities.
The 1990s Brought Women’s Teams to the Olympics
Despite these advancements in the Cold War era, it would not be until the 1990s that women would get equal footing in FIFA’s eyes.
- After years of advocating for themselves, women everywhere were rewarded when FIFA held the first World Championship for Women’s Football in 1991. China hosted the event, and the United States took home the title.
- Five years later, in 1996, FIFA allowed Women’s soccer to be included in the Summer Olympics, hosted in Atlanta, Georgia. The United States women’s team was once again victorious. In fact, the US Women’s team is significantly more successful than the Men’s national team.
Since then, women soccer players have been leading advocates for pay equality in the US.
Soccer is the Most Popular Sport in the World
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, over half of the world’s population tuned in to watch the final match of the last FIFA World Cup, bringing in over $4.6 billion.
As one commentator for the Chicago Tribune puts it, “Christianity, with more than 2 billion believers, ranks second among the major religions of the world. Soccer is first.”
It often seems that way!
According to a survey conducted 20 years ago, over 240 million people regularly play soccer worldwide. It is safe to say that number has kept up with population growth.
Hence, approximately 4% of the world’s population plays soccer.
Based on trends in viewership and game attendance, statisticians have estimated that over 3.5 billion people could be considered fans of the sport. That’s over 46% of the global population.
History of Significant Rules in Soccer
Throughout the history of soccer, the rules have developed and changed in line with the game’s development.
As in any sport, some rules are more influential than others.
In the table below, you will find a timeline of all the significant changes to the rules of soccer and the year that change took place.
|Soccer Rule||Year Rule Introduced|
|Red and yellow cards||1970|
|Tackle from behind became a red-card offense||1970|
|Back pass rule||1992|
|Tackle from behind became red-card offense||1998|
From a simple game of kickball in 225 BC to a worldwide phenomenon with over two billion followers, soccer’s history is truly one that is fascinating to explore.
A sport that entrances people of all ages from around the world and has even held a place in military and political history can’t simply be called a “game.”
No one can deny that it is a global phenomenon, unparalleled in the richness of its history.
To find out more about this incredible game, check out one of my previous articles: