Who Invented Soccer? A Brief History of The Sport

Soccer is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world. It is played by millions of people of all ages, from the grassroots level to professional, international tournaments. While it is known across the U.S. as soccer, the sport is more famous in most parts of the world as football. This is because the technical name for the game is association football. In this post, we take you through a brief history of the sport we call soccer

When was soccer first played?

The origins of soccer are disputed. There are historical accounts of similar games being played as far back as 2500 B.C. and claims by various nations that they first invented the sport. People played games that involved a ball and feet in ancient times in Egypt, Greece, Italy, and China. However, these games were not like the soccer we know today as they involved hands and sticks, and feet. 

The first known example of a team ball game dates back to old Mesoamerican cultures over 3000 years ago. The ball was allegedly made out of a rock and symbolized the sun. It is said that the captain of the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods! 

Later, the Romans played a ball game called harpastum. This game involved two sides attempting to maintain possession of a small ball for as long as possible. A similar game was played in ancient Greece but was called Episkyros. These games, however, seem closer to modern-day rugby than soccer or association football. 

The ancient game that most closely relates to modern-day soccer is Tsu’Chu, which was played in China. This translates in English to ‘kicking the ball.’ Records of this game being played date back to the Han Dynasty between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D. It is believed that the Chinese game was a soldier training exercise. 

The Chinese Tsu’Chu game was similar to modern soccer in several ways. Firstly, players were not permitted to use their hands but could use other parts of their body and their feet (consider today’s players heading the ball). Secondly, the players scored by kicking the ball into a net, much like today’s soccer games, except that it was strung between two bamboo poles. 

One thing that was very different about the ancient Chinese game was the height of the goals. In Tsu’Chu, the goals were hung around 30 feet from the ground!

Since these ancient soccer-like games, various similar ones have been played in places across the world. A few examples are the Japanese game of Kemari, the Moari’s game of Ki-o-rahi, the indigenous Australian game of Marn Grook, and the native American game of Pahsaherman. 

The first documented evidence of a ball being filled with air dates back to the 7th century. Before this, balls in some regions were made with shreds of leather and filled with hair. 


Did the English invent soccer?

It is often claimed that the English invented soccer. This fact is disputed due to the soccer-like games played in ancient times that we discussed above. However, the claims that soccer was invented in England do have some truth behind them. 

Around the medieval period, soccer began to evolve in Europe. There are historical accounts in England, around the 9th century, of entire towns kicking a pig’s bladder through the city. This game was perceived by many as a nuisance and was even banned several times by the authorities in various periods of British history. 

Variations of this soccer-like game were played across the country in Britain, often stretching from one end of a town to another, with two huge teams trying to get the ball into their opponent’s goal. The teams could sometimes be mob-like, and the game could become quite violent when rules were not enforced. Nevertheless, games were a big social event, with Shrove Tuesday marking the year’s biggest game. 

This historical English game is known as ‘folk football,’ and variations of it were also played in European countries such as Italy, France, and Germany. With increasing industrialization, folk football declined in England. This has been attributed to space limitations and reduced leisure time, and legal concerns regarding the game’s violence. 

When did modern soccer emerge?

Soccer, as we know it today, has standardized rules and codes that are adhered to worldwide. The first version of the sport with similarities to today’s version emerged from Britain’s private schooling system in the early 19th century. 

While this 19th-century game bore many similarities to modern soccer and was even called football, hands and grappling were allowed at some periods during the game. The game involved two barless goals and goalkeepers. High tackles were outlawed, and tactics were introduced. Rules varied significantly, however, with some games resembling modern rugby and others soccer. 

From this initial attempt at semi-regulation of the game, the rules and regulations of football in Britain continued to evolve. By the late 19th century, dedicated school soccer clubs were emerging. However, the rules varied still and were a mismatch of today’s rugby and soccer. For example, when schools began playing matches against one another, players were permitted to use their hands and could only pass the ball backward (like today’s rugby). 

At Cambridge University in 1848, the ‘Cambridge Rules’ were established. This allowed students to climb up the ranks and saw an increasing number of adult football clubs created. The game was still some way off modern soccer in terms of rules, though. 

Where did the word soccer come from? 

In 1863, the Football Association (F.A.) was formed. There was an initial meeting in which the F.A. attempted to establish one accepted set of soccer rules derived from Britain’s different systems and codes. At this point, shin-kicking, tripping, and carrying the ball were banned, essentially separating the rougher style of play associated with rugby from soccer. 

The word ‘soccer’ was invented, around this time, to differentiate the emerging, modern version of football from rugby. The two football versions had been termed ‘rugby football’ and ‘association football’ (due to the rules associated with the formation of the F.A.). 

There were originally 11 clubs that agreed on the F.A.’s new rules. The Blackheath club departed because they wanted to play the rougher style of football, today associated with rugby. It took some time for Britain’s different regions to catch up and conform to the new rules, with many playing their variations of the game for years. 

It was popular slang amongst young men at the time to shorten the names of things and use the suffix -er in doing so. Thus, rugby football became rugger, and association football became assoccer, and later just soccer, as a play on the word’ association.’ This dispels the widely believed myth that the word soccer is a term invented in the U.S. 

It is thought that the word soccer declined in use in Britain several decades ago due to the popular misconception that it was an Americanisation. It was used widely until the 1980s, however, which also happened to be the highpoint of soccer in the U.S. 

Some countries prefer to use the term soccer, or variations on this term, because other football versions are played in these countries, and it helps avoid confusion. In the U.S., for example, the more popular sport of American Football is not the same game as soccer. 

When did professional football emerge?

The first F.A. Cup game – a tradition that continues in England today – was played in 1872. Clubs continued to join the F.A. over the years that followed. By 1887, there was an almost uniform rule structure for soccer in Britain, and the F.A. now had 128 clubs. In 1888, the Football League was formed, and the first championship league games were played. 

Initially, F.A. rules stated that players must be amateurs and could not receive pay for playing the sport. In the 1870s, several clubs decided to charge spectators’ admission, which did not go down well with players. As a result, players began to demand financial compensation for their time training and playing matches. 

As soccer grew in popularity, clubs gained an increasing number of spectators, which boosted their revenue. This led them to decide to start paying their players eventually, and thus soccer became a professional sport. Professional football was legalized in 1885. Monetization was good for the sport because it encouraged interest in the sport, which led to more teams and leagues being established. 

Industrialization was a significant factor in the development of team soccer. With increased industrialization, people met in larger numbers than ever before at churches, pubs, and factories. This was crucial in the development teams. The new railroads allowed people to travel in larger numbers to play against teams in other cities. 

When did soccer become an international sport?

As we know it today, the love of soccer quickly spread all over the world from its British roots with the F.A. Within a few decades of the F.A.’s emergence, there were soccer leagues established in many other countries. These included Denmark and the Netherlands (1889), Argentina (1893), Belgium, Switzerland and Chile (1895), Italy (1898), Uruguay and Germany (1900), Hungary (1901), France (1903), and Finland (1907). 

In 1883, what was technically the first international tournament took place, although this only involved the British nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

It is believed that the first soccer game to take place outside of Europe was in Argentina in 1867. However, this did not involve Argentinians but rather British overseas workers. 

In 1904 in Paris, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) was formed. There were initially just seven members, including France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden. The very same day, Germany announced its intention to join FIFA also. 

In 1908, soccer was included as an official sport in the Olympic Games for the first time. This was the first time that teams would compete on a global level. However, it would be the best part of a century before women’s football was first played at the Olympics in 1996!

The first-ever FIFA World Cup tournament took place in Uruguay in 1930 when the organization had 41 members. At the time of the first FIFA World Cup, there was an economic depression in Europe. This made it difficult for some nations to travel the distance to Uruguay to compete. Only 4 European countries made the trip to compete, with the assistance of the host nation. They included France and Belgium. 

In the first FIFA World Cup tournament, Argentina was the favorite to win. They competed against host nation Uruguay in the final. Victory went to the host with a 4-2 win. The USA reached the semi-finals where they lost 6-1 to Argentina, but this remains the nation’s best finish in the tournament to date! 

The FIFA World Cup is one of the most significant sporting events today, and the organization now has over 200 members. In total, six confederations govern the specific geographic regions to which they belong. 

The six confederations are Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL) and Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA),

At a club level, the most prominent global tournament is the European Champion’s League. This emerged in 1992 to replace its predecessor, the European Cup, which ran from 1955 until 1991.  


As we have shown, it cannot be conclusively determined who invented soccer due to the dispute resulting from accounts of their being ancient versions of similar games. That being said, the codified version of soccer that we know so well today undoubtedly arose from the British Football Association, which is where both the terms’ soccer’ and ‘association football’ come from.