The history of soccer, commonly called association football outside of North America, is fairly narrow compared to the historical scale of other sports. Soccer itself owes its development to Europe – primarily Britain – in the late Middle Ages and early modern age. These same Medieval sports that led to the eventual development of soccer are also equally responsible for the development of rugby and American football.
However, sports similar to soccer with their own independent histories go back as early as the 3rd century BC, lending the history of soccer an illusionary ancestry. Perhaps because of this, many modern sources dealing with the history of soccer misrepresent these historical sports, making connections where there are none. As such, this summary of the sport’s history will not only detail relevant ball-and-foot sports, but will also debunk repeated misconceptions regarding its development. (For example, the unfounded assertion that the ancient Greek game episkyros had similarities to soccer is deflated further down.)
The Japanese game kemari is one such sport often included in modern sources discussing the history of soccer. While this medieval game did involve kicking a ball around the size of those used in soccer, its mechanics were much more similar to “hacky sack” or footbag. In the most common form of the game, eight players in a 20 ft. by 20 ft. court took turns kicking a ball into the air, attempting to keep it off the ground for as many kicks as possible. These courts featured four specially placed trees, one planted in each corner, which were used to add an extra layer of entertainment to the game. Players would often kick the ball up into these trees, which were pruned in such a way that the ball would bounce down through the branches without getting stuck. The player closest to the ball on its way down would try to intercept it, kicking it to another player to continue the play.
While the mechanics of the game are comparable to a group juggling a soccer ball, the similarities end there. Analyzing the typical kemari game (as opposed to the very infrequent, competitive version of the sport, discussed in its article), the lack of teams, goals, and scoring sits in stark contrast with the primary elements of soccer. Additionally, no historical evidence suggests the game has any links with the development of soccer.
The ancient Chinese sport cuju, played primarily from the 3rd century BC to the 14th century AD, is perhaps one of the most similar ancient sports to modern soccer. Within its period of popularity, the most common form of cuju had one or two goals positioned in the middle of the field, which each team attempted to kick a ball through to score points. In the traditional style of the game, zhuqui, there was only one goal, and each team would try to pass the ball through it from their respective sides in order to score.
On the surface, cuju appears to share quite a few characteristics with modern soccer. However, such an observation does not support the claim the ancient China invented soccer, as cuju has no historical links to the development of association football in Europe. The two sports, though sharing some similarities, appear to have developed independently.
The Australian Aboriginal game woggabaliri is sometimes referenced in sources discussing the history of soccer, though it neither looks like a form of soccer nor ties in with its history. This sport, first recorded by Prussian scientist William Blandowski (1822–1878) in 1857, involved kicking a ball in the air and attempting to keep it from touching the ground. Based on the game’s description, it seems it was similar to juggling a soccer ball among several players. However, this description seems to be the full extent of the game, with no end goal except to keep the ball in play for as long as possible.
The attribution of woggabaliri to the history of soccer may stem from confusion regarding both this game and another Aboriginal sport called marn grook. While the rules for marn grook were not recorded in detail, eyewitnesses to the game reported that players would dropkick the ball to other players. When someone caught the ball, they would stop moving and attempt to drop kick it to someone else. Based on this description, this sport was not very similar to soccer neither. The attribution of both of these sports to the development of soccer by some sources is likely the result of insufficient research on these games, much like how William Blandowski’s 1857 sketch of woggabaliri, pictured, is often incorrectly attributed to marn grook.
One of the most common inaccurate attributions to the history of soccer lies within ancient Greece. The Greek game episkyros and the similarly influenced Roman game harpastum are often referred to as Greco-Roman soccer/football sports. Based on what little information of these games was recorded by Greco-Roman authors such as Galen (129–216) and Julius Pollux (2nd century AD), their style of play was more comparable to American football or rugby.* No evidence suggests either of these games even involved kicking the ball.
This misconception seems to tie in with a 4th century BC Greek marble relief discovered in Piraeus, displayed to the right. The relief depicts a scene very similar to a modern soccer player in the middle of juggling a soccer ball, balancing it on his knee. In fact, most modern materials using a picture the relief will caption something along the lines of “Greek soccer/football.” A 1994 postage stamp in Greece even depicted this relief next to an image of two soccer players, leaving the implication that the two sports were related. This misinformed association, in tandem with the lack of detailed recorded rules for episkyros, seems to have led to a connection between the two. In reality, it’s much more likely that this relief depicts some sort of exercise or game, as similar training methods are described in Galen’s Exercise with the Small Ball. It is very unlikely this relief has to do with episkyros or the history of soccer. In addition, no historical evidence suggests ancient Greco-Roman culture had any sport similar to modern soccer.
*Episkyros seems to have been fairly similar to rugby, though harpastum seems to have been somewhat of an inversion of its Greek predecessor. Its unique mechanics are elaborated in the linked article.
Because Europe is responsible for the development of modern association football, its history is filled with sports that tie in directly with the history of soccer. Perhaps the most intriguing of these sports is the broad category of medieval mob football games. The term “football” is used fairly loosely here – not all of these sports involved much kicking. These types of games had regional adaptations with their own variations of rules. The most notable sports include Welsh cnapan, French la soule, and Irish caid.
The basic mechanics of these games were the same. Typically played by neighboring parishes, the goal of each team was to get the ball back to a landmark in their own parish, often a church. As such, the play area expanded across miles of variable terrain with no real boundaries. Matching the scale of the field, player count could often reach into the hundreds, and more than two teams could be involved in a game.
Players handled the ball a wide variety of ways. In one variation of la soule, players wielded sticks to strike the ball. Those who could afford to do so could carry the ball atop horseback in cnapan. However, the primary means of transport remains constant among these games: carrying and kicking. Granted, it seems the ball was typically carried, but historical references to these games suggest players would drop kick the ball, and in some variations would kick it along the ground. While these games may not seem very relevant to the history of soccer, the evolution of mob football sports directly led to the development of modern football sports in Europe coming out of the Middle Ages.
Another sport that likely contributed to the history of soccer’s development is the Italian Renaissance era sport calcio fiorentino, a high-class game enjoyed primarily by nobility and closely associated with the royal Medici family. It was played on a sand court around 130 ft. by 260 ft., aligning much more closely with the size with a soccer field than the expansive landscapes used in the aforementioned mob football sports. Each team had 27 players, meaning this average sized court was packed with 52 men. The goal of each team was to pass a ball over the opposing team’s back barrier. To do so, players were allowed to hold, throw, and kick the ball.
It’s quite possible that calcio fiorentino influenced the development of modern soccer, a process which began during the end of the period in which calcio was played. To further suggest this, some of its elements align fairly closely with soccer. When calcio fiorentino underwent a revival in 1898, the game was reinvented under the influence of soccer, heavily adopting some of its characteristics. In a twist of irony, the Renaissance sport that likely contributed to soccer’s development was reborn under the latter. This reinvented calcio fiorentino is still played today, though it is not identical to the original sport.
One of the earliest pieces of evidence for organized soccer itself lies in 17th century Aberdeen, Scotland. David Wedderburn (1580–1646), a professor at Aberdeen Grammar School, published a book called Vocabula in 1636, which references a game that seems to be an early form of organized soccer. The text suggests that teams picked sides, kicked a ball, passed it to other players, tackled players, and defended a goal. Though the development of soccer is mostly attributed to England, Scotland may hold the earliest recorded instance of the sport. It’s quite possible this game influenced or directly contributed to the further development of football in England.
England & Development of Soccer
England served a central role in the history of soccer. Precursors to the game sprinkled throughout prior centuries culminate here in the 19th century. While it is true that Scotland holds the title for earliest recorded instance of soccer, it was under England’s wing that the game truly took flight.
During the early 19th century, a wide number of variations in soccer sports were played throughout England. As these games had many of their own rules, football as a whole was in a state of disorganization, much like the variations in medieval folk football games discussed above. In 1848, the University of Cambridge codified a set of rules for football, taking one of the first steps in unifying the sport. These rules weren’t readily adopted, however, as over the next 15 years a number of other schools and organizations wrote up their own.
In 1863, a lawyer and football fan named Ebenezer Cobb Morley (1831–1924) wrote to a London newspaper suggesting that an administrative organization be established to unify football. This triggered a series of events that led to the gathering of several football club leaders throughout the region and the swift formation of the Football Association in London. Using the Cambridge Rules as a basis, Morley and the newly formed FA drafted a new set of rules published under the title Laws of the Game. While these rules weren’t universally accepted immediately, the cooperation of so many football organizations led to their inevitable adoption within a few years.
By 1885, this codified game had come to be widely known as association football, the name still used throughout Britain today. It’s noted that these rules have undergone amendments over the ensuing century and a half, so a 19th century association football game compared to a modern soccer game would have a few notable differences. However, these differences are small in comparison to the variety of sports that contributed to the history of soccer throughout the prior centuries.
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