Soccer is by far the most played and most popular sport in the world today. It’s played everywhere, from the biggest stadiums in the world to small, remote villages where there isn’t even a proper ball to kick around.
The sport is also loved and enjoyed by people of all ages. But how did it all begin?
Modern soccer was invented in London, England, in December 1863 when the first governing body, the Football Association, was formed. This created a standardized, universally accepted set of rules for all teams to follow. However, the earliest forms of soccer originated in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.
Soccer has a long and interesting history that stretches back over 2000 years to various games played throughout the ancient world. Learning more about its invention and origins will help us understand and appreciate how it developed into the game we see today.
Ancient History – Origins of the Modern Game
The origins of soccer go back a long way. Some estimates suggest a similar style of ball game was being played almost 4000 years ago!
For centuries people have enjoyed kicking a ball around to try and score a goal and beat the opposition.
But when trying to understand who invented soccer, there was one country that made the most significant difference.
England invented soccer in December 1863. Although several other nations such as China, Greece, Rome, Scotland, and parts of Central America all contributed to the historical development of the game, England unified the rules and created soccer.
Along with England, many countries claim to have had a hand in the invention of soccer.
Let’s look at the claims by the other nations and see how soccer developed over the years to become the sport we now know and love.
Claims to the Invention of Soccer
Let’s take a look at these claims one by one.
What is often seen as one of the earliest examples of a game where a ball is kicked around is a game from China called Tsu’Chu, Tsu-Chu, or Cuju, which translates as “kicking the ball.”
Cuju is played on a rectangular field by two teams who have to juggle a leather ball and try to kick the ball into a goal. The use of hands is banned. The Chinese military often used the competitive version of the game as fitness training.
You can probably already see the similarities between Cuju and soccer!
Cuju was hugely popular in China for centuries. Although its popularity eventually declined, there are still teams in China that play it and try to keep the tradition alive.
Check out this video of a guy playing Cuju to see how it compares:
Probably the most significant moment in the acceptance of Cuju as the forerunner to soccer was in 2005 when Sepp Blatter, the head of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) at the time, declared that Linzi, China, where Cuju was regularly played, was the birthplace of world football. [source]
The Linzi Football[Soccer] Museum in Zibo, Shandong Province, China now exists as a testament to the links between the sports and the influence Cuju had on the invention of soccer.
Greece’s claim to the origins of soccer revolves around the game Episkyros.
Episkyros involved two teams handling or kicking a ball. The aim was to get the ball past a white line on the opposition’s side of the field of play. This game was heavily based on teamwork and defense. Good team organization and defensive structure were key to succeeding at Episkyros.
Although this was a much more physical game than modern-day soccer, and the use of hands stands out as a difference, the teamwork and strategy involved would have an important impact on the development and invention of soccer.
The claims from Rome originate from the game Harpastum which was played in ancient Rome.
Harpastum, which seems to have developed from the Greek game of Episkyros, was played with a small ball, similar in size to a softball, and was considered to be a fairly violent game.
Not too much is known about how Harpastum was played, but it is believed that it was played between two teams on a rectangular field, with the aim being to get the ball over the opposition’s line to score.
It was considered to be a fast, physical, and highly skilled game.
Due to the vast reach of the Roman Empire at this time, this game would have been widely spread around much of the known world at the time, including into England, where modern-day soccer was invented. Harpastum would have likely had a large influence on the development of soccer.
Parts of Central America
As far back as 1600 BC, a game the Mayans called Pok a Tok and the Aztecs called Tlachtli was played throughout Central and northern South America. [source]
Despite being almost 4000 years ago, there is a surprising amount of historical evidence for this game. Somewhere in the region of 1,300 courts have been discovered around Central America and even some of the rubber balls they would have used have been found almost perfectly preserved in bogs in the area.
Unlike some of the other sports we’ve mentioned, this game wasn’t played on a rectangle field but an I-shaped court. The game featured two teams who had to try to get the ball to the opposition’s end of the court while keeping the ball in the air and not using their hands.
One way this game differs from the others we’ve talked about so far is that it was played for religious reasons rather than recreational. And members of the losing team could even be sacrificed!
Although it’s hard to see a direct line between this game and the modern game, it’s strong evidence that a “kickball game” was being played in Central America a long time before anywhere else in the world.
The first mention of soccer in Scotland goes all the way back to 1424, when King James I outlawed the game because he felt it was too disruptive. Multiple Acts of Parliament were also passed in the years after this trying to ban the sport from being played.
At this time, it was an incredibly violent game. There’s a court case from 1601 recording that two brothers were shot and killed over a disagreement in a game.
Scotland’s claim over the invention or origins of soccer is based on these facts but also on the fact that the oldest existing football in the world was discovered in the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle and dates from around 1540. The world’s first soccer club was also formed in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1824.
England in the middle ages
As with Scotland, the first record of soccer in England was in a proclamation by the reigning monarch at the time. King Henry IV issued a decree to ban soccer from being played. It seems that the British royal family in the middle ages were not fans of soccer!
Soccer clearly continued to be played despite these rulings, and there are many references to “foteball” being both enjoyed and despised by people at the time!
However, it was in England in the 19th century when the modern game of soccer really began to take shape.
Development of Soccer in 19th Century England
At the beginning of the 1800s, soccer was played in England by the majority of schools and universities.
The problem was that there was no universally accepted set of rules that all games had to follow, and each school or university had its own set of rules. This meant that one rule that was strictly adhered to in one part of the country was not even considered in another part.
This frequently became a problem when two teams from different places tried to play against each other. It led to a lot of disagreements and confusion.
In the 1840s, the first attempt at creating a universally accepted set of rules was undertaken.
The Cambridge Rules – 1848
In 1848 teachers from a variety of different schools across the south of England gathered at Trinity College, Cambridge University, with the intention of creating a common rulebook for soccer.
After what was described as “slow progress,” they eventually agreed on some rules and created the document that became known as the Cambridge Rules.
Some of the rules that came into effect with the Cambridge rules were –
- Banning the practice of running with the ball in your hands
- Awarding a goal when the ball was kicked between the flags and under the string
- Allowing throw-ins to be taken with one hand only
- and ruling that every player on the same team should wear the same color cap
Although at this time, these rules still allowed for the use of hands in the game, the amount the ball could be handled was reduced.
The Cambridge rules were an important step in the formation of soccer.
The Sheffield Rules – 1858
The next significant step to creating a universally accepted set of rules took place in 1858 in Sheffield, England.
Similar to what had been happening in the south of England, different schools, universities, and clubs across the north of England had been playing the game with different rules depending on where they were.
In 1858 a number of clubs all came together to formalize a common set of rules to reduce the confusion.
At a general meeting of the Sheffield Football Club in October 1858, the Sheffield Rules were created.
At this time, the rules restricted but didn’t completely ban the handling of the ball.
Some areas that were an important step forward with these rules were that:
- They defined the rules around a throw-in and
- They clarified and reduced how much physical contact was permitted between players.
Over the next two decades, these rules spread across the north of England and were widely adopted by clubs, schools, and universities in the area.
The rules were amended multiple times over the next 10 years, mostly just fine-tuning what they had already put in place, although in 1863, the offside rule was introduced for the first time.
However, the most significant amendment was in 1867 when every player, except the goalkeeper, was banned from touching the ball with their hands.
This was a significant step that dramatically shaped the modern game of soccer.
The Sheffield rules are also credited with introducing soccer to the ideas of corners and free-kicks for fouls. As well as the development of forward positions and the position of a goalkeeper.
The Sheffield rules were used in soccer until 1877, when the Football Association rules were adopted instead.
The Football Association formed – 1863
In 1863 in what has become the most important moment in attempting to create a universally accepted set of rules, multiple clubs and schools came together in London.
Although with the creation of the Cambridge and Sheffield rules, some common rules had been established, there was still no nationwide agreement on how the game should be played.
The mostly industrial club teams in the north of England were playing it one way under the Sheffield rules, and the public schools in the south were playing soccer in a different way using the Cambridge rules.
In October 1863, eleven club and school representatives got together not just to form a set of rules that all teams across the nation could follow but also to create a governing body for soccer nationwide to govern the sport and all its future developments.
Over the course of 6 meetings between October and December of that year, the first version of the rules of the modern game of soccer was created.
These discussions used the various currently used rules as a basis but brought together the common features and united the different opinions of how the game should be played.
This didn’t mean there weren’t any disagreements. A few of the schools that were involved in the meetings at first actually walked away because they couldn’t get on board with the rules that were being proposed.
One of the main disagreements was around the option of handling the ball, and it is worth noting that some of the schools that broke away from the formation of the Football Association went on to create the game we now know as rugby.
The first game under these newly agreed rules was played on 19 December 1863 between Morley’s Barnes team and their neighbors Richmond.
Although Football Association rules and the Sheffield rules actually ran alongside each other for a number of years, in 1877, the Sheffield Football Association decided to accept the Football Association rules after the Football Association adapted their throw-in rule.
Globalization of Soccer
After this momentous occasion in 1863, when soccer was created, the sport began to spread all around the world. From a few schools and clubs in England in the 19th century to the billions of people worldwide who enjoy it today, soccer has grown and grown and now has a global reach and influence.
It has changed and adapted over the years. The rules have been fine-tuned and changed as and when they need to be. FIFA became the main governing body of soccer in 1904 when the organization was created in response to the need for an international governing body.
But the creation and invention of soccer will always be traced back to that moment in England in 1863 when the first governing body for soccer was established.
For a more detailed look at what happened in the history of soccer from 1863 onwards, check out my article – The History of Soccer: From Origin to Modern Day.
*Check out the next post – The 11 Essential Roles of a Midfielder in Soccer*