THE SHORT VERSION:
While the exact history of soccer is ambiguous, many believe:
- The game traces its origins back to rudimentary ball games played in China and Rome.
- Soccer as it’s known today developed over centuries in England.
- Freemason’s Pub in where many of the modern rules were laid down.
Football, or better known as soccer in America, is the world’s most popular sport with over 4 billion fans. But what’s the story behind this game? Who invented it? Where did it originate? And how did it find its way to the United States?
Its history is muddy and while some details are up for debate, below is a brief overview of soccer’s history.
Although a far cry from today’s version of the game, some historians believe early games played with a ball occurred over 3,000 years ago in Mesoamerican culture.
China had a rudimentary game called Cuju that involved kicking a ball on a square surface through goals made from bamboo back in the second and third centuries. Also, the ancient Greeks had ball games as did the Romans, and some allege the Romans brought these games to the British island.
While the exact history of how soccer as we know it got started, historians think the game developed in England in the 12th century. Back then, the game was played in the streets and players could use their hands and their feet to move the ball. Historians say these early games were so violent, players sometimes died during competition, and eventually the game was banned by King Edward III in 1365 and later by King James I in 1424 and it remained so for several centuries.
In 1863, in London, the first Football association came into being and during the meeting, they established rules such as the rule against using hands to advance the ball, and the rules regarding the size and weight of the ball. Also, during this meeting, the game was divided into clear delineations: association football and rugby, which had different rules such as allowing for the kicking of shins, tripping and carrying the ball.
Even though the game was taking shape, it still didn’t resemble what we see today. The game continued to evolve with new rules added and changed, such as the number of players allowed in the field during play. During this evolution, the idea of using your head became part of the game.
As the game continued growing, it became a popular form of entertainment for the British working class and would draw huge crowds to see big matches. And, while football clubs existed, they were unorganized and it’s difficult to tell which was the official first football club. However, historians believe the Football Club formed in 1824 in Edinburgh was the first official club.
It wasn’t until October 1863 that what we call modern soccer was formed. Eleven representatives from the football clubs and schools that played the sport met at the Freemason’s Tavern to lay down standard fundamental rules, and the result was the creation of the Football Association. It was in December of that same year that Rugby Football and Association football went their separate ways marking a clear separation between rugby and soccer. Then in 1869, the Football Association put a stop to players using their hands to advance the soccer ball and the game grew more popular especially with soldiers and sailors who helped spread the sport around the world.
Soccer in the United States
Like soccer in Europe, the origins of the game here in the US are fuzzy. Some believe the game came to the US via Ellis Island in the 1870s, however, other historians say the game came to America back in the 1850s in New Orleans when Scottish, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants settled there.
However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the game truly ‘arrived.’ Back then, there was a boom in manufacturing in the United States and with plenty of immigrant workers ready to go to work in the mills, plants, and factories it was only natural they brought their favorite game with them. Then, in 1921 the American Soccer League (ASL) was formed with the founding teams coming from blue collar places like Bethlehem, Pa. and Fall River, Mass.
Although the sport grew, infighting caused the collapse of the ASL and the game lost popularity for about 40 years.
Then, in 1967, a group of entrepreneurs started the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) hoping to revitalize the sport, but they failed and the group disbanded after only one season.
In 1975, Pelé - who was considered the greatest player of all time - signed to play with the New York Cosmos, which was a team owned by Warner Communications. It was his signing that catapulted soccer back into the spotlight in the US and drove it into the mainstream. And while interest in soccer fell after Pelé’s retirement in 1977 and as the economy tanked, it would come back about 10 years later when FIFA, the world’s governing body of the sport, brought the World Cup competition to the US.
After the World Cup, soccer continued to grow in popularity and Major League Soccer was formed, which endures to this day.