The History of Soccer: A Look Back at How it All Started
Soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world. Every year, billions of people tune in to watch teams go head to head in a strategic battle of defense and offense. It’s played all over the world, rich or poor, hot or cold. Soccer has truly become the global sport, and it’s only growing – making a resurgence in North America, Asia, and Africa, and inspiring millions of young fans to jog onto the pitch.
How exactly did such a simple sport turn into a cultural phenomenon? For that, we turn to history. Let’s take a look at the story of the beautiful game.
The first sport played with the feet originated in Mesoamerica and was termed pok a tok by Frans Blom, a Danish archaeologist. While many different variants of the game existed, including some primitive forms of field hockey and a sort of netless volleyball, the one that most resembles soccer was played by getting a small rubber ball through two rings on the opposite sides of the pitch.
Similar to soccer, the use of your arms was not allowed, but the most common theory suggests that the only part of your body you were allowed to use were your hips, elbows, knees, and thighs. While the sport may not have seemed anything like what we think of as soccer, it was perhaps the most primitive form of what we call the beautiful game.
The game was played by the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs for thousands of years, up until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Games would last for days, and a single goal was often all you needed to win as it was so difficult to score through the extremely narrow hoop. Winners were celebrated while the losers had a much more severe punishment, often having to be sacrificed to the gods.
Pok a tok was arguably where soccer originated. Obviously, it’s gone through lots of changes, but the concept is similar and it very might well be the beginning of the sport’s history and at least an important milestone in the history of soccer and sport itself.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans
Like just about anything back then, the Greeks and the Romans played a huge part in the creation of soccer. While it’s not quite clear exactly how their forms of soccer worked, there are multiple depictions of Greeks and Romans playing a crude ball game with their feet.
These games were often quite violent, players emerging with severe injuries. In fact, the game was so rough that it was often used to train their soldiers for battle. Episkyros and Harpastum were two of the most common games played back then, both somewhat resembling what we now know as soccer.
Both games allowed the use of hands and were both extremely violent, players wrestling on the ground while chaos ensued around them. This sort of game is still played to this day, Calcio Fiorentino, also known as Calcio Storico, being played in Florence once a year in Piazza Santa Croce.
It’s thought that the English, credited with the invention of soccer, discovered the game from the Romans after a battle in the early centuries CE. The Greeks and the Romans each had their own variants of soccer, helping start the spread and creation of the beautiful game throughout Europe.
How About the Other Continents?
It wasn’t all Europe and Central America though. In fact, the game that resembles soccer the most actually stems from Asia.
Cuju, also termed Ts’u Chu, was played on a square field and involved shooting a small ball, usually made of leather packed with bird feathers, into a goal with a net. As with all ball games during that time, many variants existed – from trying to keep the ball up as long you could with your feet to five-a-side where six small holes were inserted into the wall to act as goals.
It’s not really certain what the rules were exactly, but it’s assumed that there were six people to each team, both trying to kick a ball through a goal in the wall. A referee was appointed along with an assistant, and they ensured that play was kept fair and nonviolent, similar to today’s game of soccer.
Similarly to the Greeks and Romans, Cuju was also used to train soldiers. The game was nowhere near as violent, but it required stamina and dexterity, two things that could be applicable in war. It also promoted teamwork, boosted morale, and allowed the soldiers to take some time off and just relax.
The game was a widespread phenomenon throughout all of Asia, eventually spreading to countries like Japan and Vietnam, each country adapting the rules and the style to make it their own. It was a game of the people, ordinary citizens of all ages playing in the streets, but it also became slightly more organized, later on, Emperor Wudi ordering all of the best Cuju players to come to the capital so that he could watch them.
It wasn’t all in Asia, though. Africa, North America, and even Australia all had their own ball games, some resembling the modern game of soccer. Sport is a global phenomenon, a link between different cultures, between different languages, and it only makes sense that it would take root all over the world.
Cuju was the first true form of football, and it’s actually recognized by FIFA as the first game that resembled soccer. While we may associate soccer mainly with Europe, we must also understand that it is global; every place had experimented with the sport, and it’s not fair to give the Europeans full credit for inventing the beautiful game.
The Brits & the Start of the Modern Game
Here’s where we really start to see soccer take form. As thousands of years past, games evolved, and a new sport started to take hold in England.
The early version of the game was violent (starting to see a trend, aren’t you), often resulting in masses kicking, punching, and tripping each other in order to score a goal. Goals were achieved by taking the ball to a target spot. While it was called football, it was probably more closely related to rugby.
The sport was hugely popular, and people often spent their whole day on the fields playing. In fact, the sport became so popular that it was banned by both the English and Scottish monarchy. In 1365, King Edward III banned all instances of the game, declaring that it was too violent and that it promoted laziness in the soldiers, who often skipped training in order to watch the sport.
In 1424, King James I proclaimed publically in Parliament that the game should be outlawed, preferring archery, a sport that was much less violent and also helped the people train for battle. As we all know, prohibition never works, and the sport quickly came back, albeit somewhat less violently.
By as soon as the 1830s, students had started organizing soccer matches, and they had even implemented their own rules, rules that resembled what we now know as soccer. This was where we saw the first true separation between rugby and soccer.
But the true breakthrough occurred in 1863.
In 1863, the Cambridge University rules were published in the press. The rules set forth the basic outline of soccer. Kickoffs were introduced as well as the offside rule, and unlike previous editions of the sport, almost all touching of the ball with the hands was outlawed.
The length of the pitch was set as well as the size of the goal, and referees were put in place to make sure that players did not engage in any sort of tripping, pushing, or fouling. Sure, there was still much to be desired from the rules, but they did provide a basic foundation, and a good one at that, to launch the game of soccer throughout Europe and eventually globally.
This is also where we saw the FA (Football Association) emerge. The first meeting between the committee occurred shortly after the rules were made, and it was the start of organized football throughout all of Britain. The FA still stands to this day, and it is a permanent member of both UEFA and FIFA, arguably most famous though for the annual FA Cup, a competition which started in 1871.
The game was no longer played differently in different places – almost all of Britain accepted and implemented the rules, marking the beginning of soccer.
In 1888, the Football League was established, the first official league for football and 12 teams were pitted against each other, playing every other team both home and away. The scoring system was slightly different, giving two points instead of three for a win. A second league quickly emerged just four years later, and we started to see the creation of the modern association football system.
The Brits took a game that was played all over the world, each with its own different variations, and made it their own. They established the first rules, played the first international match, and founded the first league and official competition.
As We Know It Today
Following the creation of the Football League, the game really flew off. European countries started hearing about these new rules and the creation of organized football, and many joined in just a couple of years later.
In 1904, FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) was formed, marking the beginning of the sport as a world-wide game, and bringing countries from all over the world together. The founding members were Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. South Africa became the first non-European member in 1909 when they applied to join FIFA.
FIFA is divided into six confederations, each continent having their own. So far, 211 members have been inducted into FIFA. That’s particularly impressive when you consider that there are only 196 countries in the world, meaning that there are actually more members than countries. This is because many of the founding members, now no longer independent countries, have been allowed to stay in the federation.
Just 26 years after the creation of FIFA, the inaugural edition of the World Cup was played, Uruguay being crowned champions over Argentina. With just 13 countries participating, the tournament didn’t carry the same weight, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the current format was introduced, expanding the field to 32 teams. It’s soon to undergo yet another change as the 2026 edition will have a total of 48 teams.
Historically, Brazil has been the most dominant team, followed closely by Italy and Germany, with other European and South American countries behind. So far, only South American and European teams have won the World Cup, although African teams have started to make deeper and deeper runs into the competitions, Ghana famously making the quarterfinals of the 2012 World Cup only to be denied by Luis Suarez’s handball in the last minute of extra time.
The World Cup isn’t FIFA’s only competition, but it is by far its most popular. The 2014 edition of the tournament attracted 3.2 billion viewers and over a billion alone for the final between Germany and Argentina.
FIFA has united countries from all over the world through soccer, a simple sport with universal roots and interests. It is estimated that there are close to 4 billion soccer fans in the world, over half of the world’s population, and that number will only grow as more and more countries become more interested in the sport.
Here’s a list of the five major European leagues and when they were founded:
Premier League: 1888 (Football League)
Serie A – 1898
La Liga – 1929
Ligue 1 – 1932
Bundesliga – 1963
The Italians were the first to join the party followed by the Spanish, then the French, and finally the Germans. All of these countries had begun playing the modern game of soccer much earlier, but it was mostly on an amateur level, although their national teams had started participating in international competition much earlier.
FIFA governs over all six of the confederations, each of which have their own leagues, own teams, and own competitions. To save some time, we’re going to be looking at the two major ones – UEFA and CONMEBOL.
UEFA was founded in 1954, and it now contains 55 member associations. It also governs the major European club competitions, most notably the Champions League (founded in 1955) and the Europa League (founded in 1971).
These competitions invite the top clubs from all of Europe to compete, and the winner of the Champions League is considered the top club in the world. European clubs have historically dominated the international scene, Brazilian teams making a short stint among the best in the world, but they have declined, almost all of the top players departing to play in Europe.
The CONMEBOL was founded in 1916, and it is home to the South American clubs, most importantly the Brazilian and Argentinian leagues. Santos has been the most prominent of the South American teams, winning multiple international competitions, and fostering some great players, most notably Pele and Neymar.
They were briefly considered the best club in the world, but with more flexibility regarding the transfer market, players started to leave for Europe more and more often, having the chance to earn higher wages and compete against better competition.
Nowadays, club football is almost entirely European. Sure, other leagues still have their fans, but all the best players and all the best teams are in Europe. There is an intercontinental competition that was founded in 1960, but in recent years, its importance has started to diminish, the Champions League winners automatically being considered the best in the world.
Club football may not be as popular as international football, but it is still the most followed sporting event that occurs annually, attracting billions of fans all over the world.
Looking at the Future
The future of soccer looks bright. Countries like China and the United States have begun to take more of an interest in the sport, and with close to two billion people between the two countries, soccer should see a formidable increase in both players and fans.
The history of soccer has certainly been an interesting one, dating from as far back as 3000 BCE. Even now, rules are being changed, competitions are being added, and its popularity is growing. Soccer will always stay at the top of the list because of how simple it is.
Anyone can play. As long as you have some sort of a ball and sticks to act as posts, you can play soccer. Such a simplistic game has become the mainstay of sports, attracting billions of people.
Soccer transcends the boundaries of sport. It acts as a commonality between people, between cultures. Wherever you go, you’ll always find soccer. From the Mesoamerican cultures, Ancient Greeks and Romans, and Chinese dynasties to today’s world, soccer has been around for most of human history, and that’s what makes it all the more interesting.