Soccer/association football is the most popular sport in the world for a reason. It is not only played and followed almost religiously by millions upon millions of people worldwide but it is also as much ingratiated into the annals of history as human civilization is. Simply put, to tell the history of soccer is to tell the history of mankind.

What is the history of soccer? The history of soccer is long and surprisingly well-documented. From its humble beginnings at or around the 2nd century BC, its evolution throughout the ages, to its consolidation in the 1800s where the first successful attempts were made to come up with universally-recognized rules to govern it.

With uniform regulations, the growth of soccer as a sport was all but inevitable culminating in the global phenomena that it is today. By the turn of the new millennium, statistics showed that soccer is played at some capacity by over 250 million people and boasts of over 1 billion spectators worldwide – numbers that have\ only continued to grow.

The Beginning

The oldest record of a sport resembling the soccer we know and love today was one of a game called Ts’u-chü or Cuju that is documented as having been first played at around the 2nd century BC. Military records from the Han dynasty era show that the game was played by military personnel as a supplementary fitness exercise during the course of their rigorous training.

Cuju primarily involved kicking a ball, which was made of leather and stuffed with fur (and sometimes feathers), through a hole/opening and into a net. The rules of Cuju allowed only the use of feet and conversely prohibited the use of arms.

Several pieces of artwork from the period depict the game as having gradually grown in popularity and later played for entertainment by or in honor of royalty and the elite. Records from the subsequent Tang Dynasty also revealed that Cuju was also played by women/girls.

Cuju continued to grow in popularity and by the Song Dynasty, which succeeded the Tang Dynasty, there emerged professional Cuju players who earned a living by playing the sport. There is also evidence that suggests that a Cuju league was formed in the 10th century and that it had annual subscription fees and annual competitions – the latter of which is a common feature of soccer leagues today.

Records from other early civilizations also show the existence of games similar to soccer. One such civilization, the Japanese, had their own interpretation called Kemari, which dates back to around 1,000 BC. Kemari was played in a designated field using a ball stuffed with sawdust that was much larger than those used to play Cuju.

Some records purport that the Chinese and Japanese were the first civilizations to participate in a joint competition at around 50 BC, where Cuju players from the former competed with Kemari players from the latter.

Other variations of soccer were also played in Egypt, Greece (Episkyros), Rome and Central America. Each of the above-mentioned civilizations claim to have either started or significantly contributed to the sport However, one nation’s contribution to soccer undeniably stands out from the rest – England.

From Leisure to Custom

Soccer’s roots in England can be traced to before medieval times. It is said that the whole idea of the sport was conceived from a “legendary” celebratory game in which the severed head of a Danish prince, who was defeated in battle, was kicked around by the victors.

The concept was later translated into a sport that came to be known as folkball. Folkball was played in town and involved rival groups or villages competing for or with a ball made out of an inflated pig bladder and later, animal hide. The aim of the game was to get the ball to a pre-appointed area. 

Since there were no rules governing the sport, injuries and even death were common. The rival groups often took things too far and game-related grudges regularly spilled into day-to-day life resulting in loss of life and destruction of property.

For these reasons, a number of laws were passed, outlawing folkball. They include the first that was passed in the 14th century (1331) by King Edward III of England, two in the 15th century by King Henry IV of England (1409) and King James I of Scotland (1424), and yet another in the 16th century (1572) by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Records from the time however disclosed that people still played folkball. One such account provided in a poem by a poet named Philip Sydney in 1580 even told of women participating in the game.

Folkball was nevertheless legalized in 1605 and continued to gain recognition as a game by the masses. The sport went through its fair share of changes over the next 200 years or so before entering arguably its most defining age.

The Rebirth

The industrial revolution of the 1800s radically changed the English people’s way of life. More work meant less leisure time – a development that drastically reduced the number of people participating in sports. Industrialization also led to urbanization, which made land a scarce commodity.

Sports were therefore mostly played in independent public schools such as Eton and Charterhouse, which started developing their own set of rules to govern folkball. The rules therefore varied with some schools allowing some use of hands and others totally forbidding it. 

Such variations in the rules made it difficult for such schools to play against each other. In instances where there were matches between two schools, unconventional rules would apply. It was common for the rules of one school to be followed in one half of the match and the rules of the other school to be followed in the other half.

These rule problems followed the public students into their university life where students preferred playing with other students from their former schools since only they subscribed to the same rules they had become accustomed to. A standard set of rules hence became necessary in order to bridge the divide.

Eton College and the University of Cambridge were the first two institutions to come up with a set of rules. The former did so in 1815 while the latter codified their rules in 1843. By 1848, a number of public schools had adopted the “Cambridge rules”. Some University of Cambridge alumni also went on to form clubs which used the same rules.

The Defining Century

In October 1863, a number of meetings were held by football clubs from the larger London Metropolitan area and its surrounding counties. The aim of the meeting was to come up with a uniform set of rules which would govern any matches played between them. 

The meetings bore fruit and resulted in the formation of the Football Association (FA) and its first ever set of printed rules. In December of the same year, the FA separated itself from Rugby Football and became an independent organization.

The FA further amended its rules in 1869 to eliminate handling of the ball by players other than the goalkeeper. The FA’s rules were however not accepted across all of Britain, particularly by clubs in or around Sheffield, who banded together to form the Sheffield Football Association in 1867. Other rival associations with their own sets of rules also emerged.

The FA’s rules underwent some revisions and in 1883, the four associations that existed in Britain agreed on a single of rules to govern them forming the International Football Association Board (IFAB). A record 43 clubs were part of the new association and competed amongst each other.

By the turn of the century, soccer/association football had spread throughout Europe creating the need for an international governing body. These developments prompted delegates from football associations France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland to meet in May of 1904.

What resulted was the birth of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). FIFA went on to organize its inaugural World Cup tournament in 1930, which was hosted in Uruguay and involved only 13 teams.

England joined FIFA in 1911 and left the organization twice before rejoining it in 1946. FIFA has since strived to standardize the playing of soccer across the world and encouraged the formation of continental federations to further promote the growth of the sport.

Such federations include the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL) founded in 1916, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the Asian Football

Confederation (AFC) founded in 1954, and the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) founded in 1957. 

Others include the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) founded in 1961 and 1966 respectively. Presently, there are over 200 Football Association leagues in the world. 


I started watching football in the early 90s and was hooked. I fell in love with Chelsea and have supported them ever since. I have also written a book on Corporate Governance and Firm Performance in England and Scottish football.

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