With around 3.5 billion fans, soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world. It is played by over 240 million people from more than 200 countries and on nearly every continent. But when and where did it originate, and how did it become popular in so many countries?
Soccer was invented in London in the second half of the 19th century. Ball sports have been popular in many different cultures for thousands of years, but this was when the rules of the modern game were formalized. English colonial administrators helped spread the game around the world.
In this article, I’ll tell you a little bit about the sport’s origins and explain how it became the most popular sport in the world.
When Was Soccer Invented?
Soccer was invented in 1863 when clubs from London and nearby areas agreed to a set of formal rules establishing the game. As this agreement was fostered by the Football Association, their game came to be called “association football.”
Sports involving kicking, throwing, or otherwise contesting the possession of a ball had existed for thousands of years before this. Such games were common among many different cultures, including ancient China, Greece, and Rome, as well as the early Native Americans.
Even in England, variations of the sport without formal rules had been played for centuries. So why were the rules suddenly formalized overnight? Well, it was a result of the formalization processes accompanying industrialization.
At the time, the sport was primarily the preserve of the elites. Many players picked up the sport at various “public schools,” such as Eton, Rugby, Harrow, and Charterhouse. The only problem was that each of these schools had its own rules.
When players later met at universities like Oxford and Cambridge, they did not have a unified set of rules. Not only was the size of a soccer pitch not standardized, but even basic rules governing ball handling were yet to be fixed.
By establishing a set of rules, the Football Association standardized the game and laid the foundation for the game to be spread around the world.
Who Invented Soccer?
Soccer was invented by 19th-century English aristocrats. The English working classes made it a popular sport among the masses, and their elites exported it around the world using their colonial infrastructure.
The spread of soccer follows an intriguing pattern whereby many of the most popular sports today originated in Britain and spread throughout the world.
Apart from soccer, popular sports that originated in England include
- field hockey
- downhill skiing
Various explanations have been advanced for the popularity of English sports around the world, including:
- The English wrote down the rules for all the games. Sports resembling football and boxing had existed for centuries or millennia before the English formalized them. This is how the English left their imprint on them.
- As an island nation, the English faced fewer invasions. Their relative stability allowed them to develop more peacetime games than their mainland neighbors.
- The industrial revolution created a middle class with more leisure time. As the first industrial power in the world, the English masses had greater scope to enjoy competitive, commercial sports, boosting their popularity.
- Urbanization created early commercial leagues. These developments led to the professionalization of amateur games like soccer, turning them into the lucrative commercial sports they are today.
- Elite English boarding schools included many of these sports in their curriculum. Although they were intended to encourage discipline and fitness, grooming elites by teaching them how to run an empire, this development meant that the same elites would take these games with them wherever they went.
- The invention of the lawn mower in 1830 led to a proliferation of fields, pitches, and courts. This made it easier for the masses to play various English sports, including soccer.
- Their vast colonial empire helped the British spread their favorite sports around the world.
Which Country First Played Soccer?
Soccer was first played in England. Beginning with amateur clubs made up of English aristocrats, the sport was gradually professionalized. Within a few decades, competitive leagues and international matches were being played around the world.
The first international soccer match was played between the national teams of England and Scotland in 1872.
Then, in 1885, the English Football Association opened up a previously exclusively amateur sport to professional players. This was an important event in bringing in working-class clubs and audiences and making soccer a mass sport.
By the end of the 19th century, soccer clubs were active in countries all over Europe and South America. The English exported the game to their colonies in Africa and West Asia in the next century.
FIFA – the Fédération Internationale de Football Association – the game’s global governing body was established in 1904, and the first soccer World Cup was held in 1930.
Since then, the sport has grown in popularity. Notably, it was even played by opposing British and German troops during a Christmas truce in World War One.
Which Came First, Soccer or Football?
Soccer and football are the same game. Today, Americans refer to the game that the rest of the world calls football as soccer. Curiously, although it is a later entrant in the vocabulary, the term soccer itself is actually of English origin.
The formalization of the rules of soccer led to a division of the ball sports played in England at the time.
Games that allowed players to handle balls were placed under the sport of rugby football, and games that forbade ball handling (except by goalkeepers) came to be known as association football. These would later become the distinct sports known as soccer and rugby.
The term soccer originated on elite English campuses, such as Oxford and Cambridge. Students at these colleges often added an “er” to everyday activities. So rugby became rugger. Somehow, association football was twisted into soccer.
The word soccer was pretty common in England until the early 20th century. However, its uptake by Americans led to a backlash against using the term in England. Today, the sport is primarily referred to as football. It is known as soccer in America, where it is relatively less popular.
Like many other popular modern sports, soccer originated in England. English aristocrats formalized the rules of the game in the late 19th century, after which it was professionalized and adopted by the working-class masses. The English colonial enterprise spread it around the world, and the sport has increased in popularity ever since.