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The Origins & Evolution of Soccer

Instructor: Thomas Higginbotham

Tom has taught math / science at secondary & post-secondary, and a K-12 school administrator. He has a B.S. in Biology and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction.

The modern origins of soccer are found in 19th century England. Since then, it has spread to every corner of of the earth and is currently the most popular sport in the world. In this article, learn about its development and evolution.

The Earliest Soccer

I grew up believing that the first soccer games were murderous competitions where hordes of barbarians from two towns would kick the skulls of vanquished foes, trying to reach goals that were miles apart. Those beliefs were missing several facts. In truth, soccer, a sport that has been around for thousands of years in various forms, can be separated into two main categories of evolution, ancient and modern.

Ancient Ancestors of Soccer

Stories of games or activities that involve kicking a roundish object date back as far as 2500 B.C. Egypt. The first confirmed foot-only, soccer-like game began around 300 B.C. in China, a game called tsu-chu, in which soldiers kicked a leather-bound ball of feathers through a net. An evolved, non-competitive variant of tsu-chu arose in Japan around 500-600 A.D., called kemari, in which participants simply try to keep the ball aloft without using their hands. This variant still exists as illustrated by President Bush's participation in a kemari session in 1992.

President Bush Playing Kemari During a 1992 Japan Visit
President Bush Playing Kemari During a 1992 Japan Visit

Other soccer predecessors tended to use feet and hands to move balls of various materials and involved teams of various sizes. These included the Ancient Roman harpastum and the Ancient Greek episkyros.

Early Modern Soccer

The direct progenitor of soccer (and other sports such as rugby, American football, and Irish football) originated in around 9th-century Britain, and persisted in various forms through the 19th-century until it was formally 'cleaned up' and organized. During those thousand years, there were regional variants, but they generally had some things in common. First, they used all body parts (including arms and hands). Second, they were often violent. Finally, they involved large numbers of people, often entire villages. Rules were loose, (some forms were believed to have just two rules - no murder, no manslaughter). Historians call these variants mob football. It became popular and dangerous enough that several kings and rulers tried to ban the game in the 14th and 15th centuries. Mob football eventually diverged into several distinct branches, one of which was soccer.

Illustration of Mob Football

The Football Association

British 'public' schools, which are actually private, began enjoying a more standardized football, though it still had many variants with different house rules. Wanting to make the game safer, in 1863, several major public schools created the Football Association (FA), which formalized and standardized rules for soccer. It wasn't until about 1869 that using hands on the ball was forbidden. From this point, the game exploded in Britain and throughout the world. In 1872, the first formal soccer tournament competition was established, the FA Cup, a tournament that still exists among top British soccer clubs.

The Spread of Soccer

Other British countries soon established football associations, including Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, with the English side playing Scotland as early as 1872. The first professional league, which began in 1888, was based in England. In the 1890s, the FA spread to New Zealand and South America, among other places in Europe.

IFAB - The Steward of Soccer's Rules

The IFAB (International Football Association Board), established in England in 1886, is responsible for the international rules of soccer, the Laws of the Game. The Laws evolved from 1863 on to include many of the hallmarks of modern soccer such as penalties, referees (originally, it was believed that true 'gentlemen' would not deliberately foul), free-kicks, and corner kicks. In 1938, IFAB modernized all of the gradual changes that had occurred in the previous half-century. It wasn't until 1997 that those Laws were rewritten, a testament to the sport's simple elegance. IFAB is still the official soccer Laws warden.

FIFA - Soccer's International Organizer

In 1904, given the expansion of international competition, FIFA was created by seven mainland European football associations. In 1906, the British FA joined FIFA. In 1913, FIFA joined the IFAB. From those humble beginnings, FIFA now has 209 member organizations from all over the world. In fact, there are so many members, that confederations have been created to arrange soccer by location. For example, CAF (Confederation of African Football) organizes soccer in African countries.

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