The history of football in America owes its early development to medieval Europe, where a wide variety of mob football games were played with many regional variations. While most of these games died out, as detailed below, others led to the eventual development of soccer, rugby, and American football. The peak of these developments occurred in the 19th century, elaborated under European Region below, leading to the creation of some of the most popular spectator sports in the world.
Modern materials discussing the history of football often link these modern games with ancient sports, especially within Greco-Roman culture. While there is no evidence to suggest such games have any historical link with modern forms of football, their similarities to American football are discussed below.
One such sport often lumped into the history of football is the game of episkyros, played in ancient Greece from an unknown period before the 5th century BC and for some time after. Accounts of this game are sparse, making it difficult to ascertain its rules. However, some of its basic mechanics have been pieced together, and they bear a level of similarity to American football. Teams of 12 to 14 players would attempt to move a ball past the opponent’s back line, though the methods to do so are not well elaborated. It seems one such method was to move past the back line while holding the ball, much like football in America. Episkyros also seems to have included interceptions, fumbles, tackling, juking opponents, and several other football-like features.
Despite these similarities, episkyros has no known connection with the history of football. No links have been found between this game and mob football sports in Europe, the latter of which led to the development of football in America. As such, despite its similarities, episkyros does not contribute to the history of football in America.
The case is similar for the Roman game harpastum, largely due to the fact that the sport was a Roman adaptation of episkyros. As such, the two share many characteristics. However, accounts of harpastum suggest the sport was even more dissimilar to American football than its predecessor.
Its rules are difficult to determine in their entirety, but it seems harpastum was somewhat of an inversion of episkyros. Instead of trying to move a ball past the opponent, the goal of each team seems to have been to keep the ball within their own half of the field, attempting to keep the opponent from reaching it. Despite these differences, the game still featured some aforementioned elements of modern football – interceptions, fumbles, tackling, and juking – though these are coincidental. The game also allowed for full out grappling between opponents. Because of these dissimilarities and the lack of connections to football in Europe, harpastum does not directly contribute to the history of football.
Medieval Europe is where the history of football in all its modern forms truly begins. Europe was filled with mob football sports in seemingly endless variation, though only a handful of these sports were widely practiced. Even fewer of these Middle Age games have had their rules accurately preserved to the extent that we can study them in some detail. Many of them share more characteristics with American football than with soccer, making the former more of a spiritual successor (though, to be fair, it is arguable that rugby is even more similar to them than American football). The four medieval games with the most surviving information are French la soule, Welsh cnapan, Irish caid, and, to a lesser extent, Italian calcio fiorentino. These sports are discussed in more detail below, ordered by increasing similarity to American football.
These four sports are not necessarily ordered chronologically. With regard to their historical timeframe, the first three sports have fuzzy origins that mix together, as they were often only called “football” or another generic name rather than a named variant. The earliest reference to such games lies in the 9th century AD, though it’s possible some of them were played for some time before that. The fourth sport, Italian calcio fiorentino, seems to have entered the scene several centuries after the others, peaking during the Renaissance era. These details are all elaborated in their respective articles.
The French game la soule was perhaps the most variable of these medieval mob football sports, as it seems to have featured more rulesets than its cousins.* In all its variations, two or more huge teams, each representing their respective parishes, would attempt to move a ball to a predetermined point – typically their village’s church porch. With each team consisting of 10 to 100 players, playing fields spanning across miles of variable terrain, and matches lasting all daylight hours, this was a sport of truly massive scale.
Despite the difference in scale, la soule did bear some similarities to modern football in America. To handle the ball, payers typically ran it, kicked it, and threw it to other players.* In addition, the game was very physical, involving tackling, grappling, and the like. It serves as an early entry in the history of football; one of a series of games that would lead to the development of football in America.
*In two variations, la soule au pied and shouler a la crosse, players were restricted to soccer-style and hockey-style ball handling, respectively. In all other variations, the ball handling seems to have been similar to that of football.
The Welsh game of cnapan, featuring fewer variations than la soule, narrows in a little more closely to the modern football formula. Its basic mechanics were the same as other mob football sports; two or more teams vied to transport a ball to their own parish. Players were not restricted with regard to handling the ball, and thus took a football-style approach of running and throwing it – though this ball was wooden and lubricated, so it was easy to lose control of it.
Cnapan did differ from other medieval mob football sports with regard to scale. There was no limit to the number of men on a team, and player count sometimes reached into the thousands; the 16th century historian George Owen of Henllys reported that matches often included over 2,000 men. To make matters more chaotic, those who could afford to do so played atop horseback. Players were allowed to do anything short of murder to achieve victory, making this a truly violent and chaotic game. The near absence of rules allowed for perhaps the most brutal sport in the history of football.
Despite the apparent barbarism, this is a somewhat accurate representation of early football in America. Early 19th century games at colleges such as Yale and Harvard had a reputation for chaos and violence, and occasional deaths at such games were not unknown. These teams, at the time much larger than 11 players, acted more like testosterone-fueled mobs than the strategic forces we see in the modern sport. Cnapan is perhaps history’s greatest archetype of this chaotic style.
The Irish game of caid, drawing back in scale, was one of the earliest sports to roughly foreshadow the style, size, and mechanics of football in America. While one variation closely matched other mob football sports with massive teams, expansive fields, and long matches, another variation was much smaller. This version was played in a set field, which would have allowed for far fewer players due to limited space. At each end of the field was a triangular goal formed by boughs of two trees, through which each team would attempt to pass the ball in order to score. The caid ball was usually made of an inflated animal bladder covered with leather. Because of this, players could comfortably drop kick the ball through the goal in addition to running and throwing it.
All of these elements describe a game with characteristics of handball and American football. In fact, this appears to be one of the earliest examples of goal posts, albeit grounded and differently shaped. It was later in the history of football that these goal posts took a different form and were elevated from the ground, leading to the eventual development of modern football’s two-pronged goal.
Moving away from the chaos of mob football games, the high-class, Italian-Renaissance-era sport calcio fiorentino pulled everything back to the field. This football sport was played in a sand court roughly 43.5 yards by 87 yards, typically in a public square with seating for spectators. The most famous of these was the court in Piazza Santa Croce, located in Florence. The game was played almost exclusively by nobility and was closely associated with the royal Medici family.
Based on accounts of the game, the play style of calcio fiorentino seems to have been very similar to that of football in the US, though with larger numbers of players. Each team had 27 players, meaning this average-sized court was packed with 54 men. Players were also allowed to physically fight each other, so tackling and grappling were all part of the sport, though pikemen on the sidelines would intervene when things got too heated. Because of the higher number of players on the field, it was much more difficult to get the ball through the opposition, making this game slower than modern football.
Ball handling was not restricted, so players could carry it, kick it, throw it, and pass it however they liked. The goal of each team was to pass the ball over the opposing team’s back barrier,* which seems to be another predecessor to the field goal in modern football. All of these elements start to align fairly well with the archetype of football in the US. Looking at the history of football from chaotic mob sports to this fielded game of strategy and skill, the beginnings of American football start coming into focus.
*The modern rendition of calcio fiorentino places a net behind the barrier that the scoring team is not to overshoot, under threat of penalty. This limits the height of a scoring throw or kick. Accounts of the original sport don’t make it clear whether there was such a height limit for scoring, though depictions of the game don’t seem to indicate there was.
All of these wildly disparate football sports started to come to a head in the 19th century. In England, some of these variations began to form what would become arguably three of the biggest sports in the Western world: soccer, rugby, and American football.
The origins of soccer and rugby were recorded fairly clearly. In 1863 a man named Ebenezer Cobb Morley (1831–1934) wrote to a London newspaper suggesting that an administrative organization should be established to unify the styles of football played among different schools throughout England. This led to the swift formation of the Football Association and the eventual adoption of their set of rules, which came to be known as association football – or soccer.
Rugby football is a namesake of the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, where in the 1830s football players were picking up the ball and running it, according to records in the area. These early records don’t clarify, however, whether this was a novel development of the school or a relic from a local history of mob football. Since the school was founded in 1567, during which different styles of mob football were still widely played, it is very likely the latter was the case. Regardless, rugby football gained a fairly high level of popularity in the mid to late 19th century, and by this time it was highly differentiated from association football. The two had become separate sports, rather than the same sport with variations in rules.
America & Development of Football
While the origins of soccer and rugby are easy to pinpoint, the history of football in America doesn’t have as clear an origin. As Europeans began colonizing North America in the 17th century, they would have brought their local styles of football with them. It is most likely that one or several of these styles led to the development of modern football beginning in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century, students at several colleges, such as Yale and Harvard, were playing varieties of such folk football sports. These games, still mimicking their mob-like predecessors, were large, chaotic, and warlike. Throughout the same period, these student bodies fought a figurative battle against the faculties of these colleges, who pushed to ban football games for their rowdiness and lack of piety. Many of these colleges proceeded with banning these sports, though these bans didn’t last through the end of the century. Within a few decades, most of them had picked the game back up in some form. However, these games were still known for being quite violent, and injuries and occasional deaths were not unknown.
As time went on, these football games became less mob-like, more organized, and closer in line with modern football. The history of football from the late 19th to early 20th century is well-recorded and rich with detail. The many attempts at unifying the varying branches of the sport continued to push them closer and closer together. Many of these changes were the result of rugby’s influence, which was already quite popular by this time, though American football was able to remain distinct and unique. Throughout this period, the modern game of football began to take shape, as many rules characteristic of the game today became popularized and codified; 11-player teams, the snap, the line of scrimmage, tries (which later became touchdowns), blocking, down-and-distance, and more. Arguably the most influential figure in football’s development through this period was Walter Camp (1859–1925), commonly referred to as the “Father of American Football,” who initially developed and proposed some of these rules. With his influence and the cooperation of American schools, the game of football was born – a truly American game that would swiftly become the most popular sport in the United States.
There are several other historical sports that are often referenced in modern materials discussing the history of football. Because of the lack of much similarity between these games and American football, in addition to their lack of influence on its development, they are excluded from this article. For further reading, these sports include Japanese kemari, Chinese cuju, Australian Aboriginal marn grook and to a lesser extent woggabaliri, and the Mesoamerican ball game.
Harris, H. A. (1972). Sport in Greece and Rome. Cornell University Press.
Crowther, N. B. (2007). Sport in ancient times. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Rowley, C. (2015). The shared origins of football, rugby, and soccer. Rowman & Littlefield.
Parrish, C., & Nauright, J. (2014). Soccer around the world: A cultural guide to the world’s favorite sport. ABC-CLIO.
Guttmann, A. (2007). Sports: The first five millennia. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Merkel, U. (2015). Identity discourses and communities in international events, festivals and spectacles. Springer.
Galen, C., & Singer, P. N. (1997). Galen: Selected works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marples, M. (1954). A history of football. London: Secker & Warburg.
Williams, G. (2007). Sport: A literary anthology. Summersdale LTD – ROW.
Magoun, F. P. (1929). Football in medieval England and in Middle-English literature.
Bradby, H. C. (1900). Rugby, Handbooks to the great public schools. G. Bell and Sons.