More Than Just a Kick in the Grass: A Brief History of Soccer

Category: Culture

In honor of USA’s amazing last minute, elimination-avoiding goal, which led to a victory today and subsequent advancement into the next round of the World Cup, Acclaro presents a history of soccer (or, um, “football”) as researched and interpreted by an American, Ben Howdeshell.

I’ll be honest. Football (which I’m calling soccer from here on out) isn’t really my thing.

I mean, I can appreciate it on an athletic level, but I know zilch-o about who plays for Manchester United or how many matches Juventus won last year. I think I might know enough to associate Pele with the game, although if he was ahead of me in line at Starbucks I wouldn’t be any the wiser. I do know it is World Cup season, however, and while I’m not on pins and needles following the teams currently duking it out for prominence, I have to admit: the adrenaline buzz surrounding the event is a little exciting.

With that in mind, as I reflect on my own ignorance of the sport, contrasted with its wild popularity by almost every other human being on earth, I have to wonder: how? How in the world did this game seize the planet, from pickup games with handful of players to packed stadiums, in all four corners of the globe? What’s the draw? To answer these questions without having to figure out what “offside” means, I’m taking a historical perspective.

Everyone’s default historian, Wikipedia, says that the modern game of “association football” (as it’s officially known) can be traced from as far back as medieval England. From there, it was refined through similar games played in various regions, including at the country’s prestigious universities, with the first formal Football Association formed in London in 1863. And from that green and pleasant land, it seems, it spread. [ed. note: Do I get extra credit points from any Britons for the “green and pleasant land” Jerusalem reference?]

Now, wait a minute. The English gave us some pretty wonderful things — a language, literature, comedy, music, a celebrated parliamentary monarchy, the birth of industry, Marmite — but can they really lay claim to one of the world’s most beloved sports? [ed. note: OK, I found a way to work Marmite in to a mention of some the greatest English contributions to modern civilization. How about those brownie points now?]


The answer is a very definite “sort of”. The modern game clearly has English roots. Prior to the advent of the Football Association, something vaguely soccer-ish had existed in various forms around the world, having been found in places like China, South America, and the Middle East. So, really, everyone invented soccer! Yay, world!

OK, back to recorded history…per Wikipedia. 1867 saw the first association football match in Argentina, by — guess who? — British railway workers, with the first South American team being formed 20 years later. From there, British expats in Brazil started up the craze in São Paulo, inviting English teams over to play them, and it spread like wildfire.

So that covers South America, but what about the rest of the planet? Apparently, as with the U.S. and South America, the British again were instrumental in spreading the game, as we know it today, throughout European countries as the Empire engaged in early global trade and travel.

Some other fun facts: Modern soccer in the United States was influenced by the rules that the Football Association (or FA) thoughtfully wrote down in London, and the first FA rules-based game was played between Princeton and Rutgers Universities in 1869. Other sources say that a pre-FA version of the game probably (and logically) arrived on our shores with the Pilgrims, rather than tracing its way up through South America.

Historically, sports besides soccer have taken places of greater prominence in the USA, such as “American football” and baseball, lovingly coined the “American pastime”. Ironically, what Americans call football is actually an offshoot of rugby which, interestingly, is also a variant of early soccer (!). America’s more recent interest in association soccer may have been sparked when the U.S. hosted its first World Cup in 1994.

On a side note, why do we have this alternate moniker of soccer, anyway? Seems as if someone took the letters s, o, and c from the word “Association” (as in Football Association) and made a word out of it. See, you learned something! Haven’t you always wondered?

And while I’m at it, who’s up for trivia? Anyone know what and where the largest athletic stadium in the world is?

If you answered 릉라도 5월1일경기장 in 평양 직할시, 조선민주주의인민 공화국, you are correct! North Korea’s Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, home to the famous Arirang Festival, seats 150,000 people, or roughly the population of Eugene, Oregon. OK — wrapping up now, I promise.

England. Argentina. Brazil. The United States. France. Italy. Spain…among countless others. With all of these international teams playing roughly the same game, it seems only natural that someone should bring them together.

Enter FIFA, the sponsor of the World Cup to this day. Founded in Paris in 1904, its name (which is tons more fun to try and say with a mouth full of peanut butter) stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association (even more fun with the aforementioned peanut butter). The first FIFA coalition games began in 1906, and the World Cup officially began in 1930. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ll admit: knowing a bit of the roots of the game, I can better appreciate the excitement. But what is it, exactly, that has kept soccer so exhilirating over the centuries? Aside from the fact that it has adapted so easily to all countries, cultures, and climates, why do people play it, and why does it draw such crowds?

Irish soccer player Paul Flood quips: “You play football with your heart, not your feet”. Perhaps English novelist J.B. Priestley puts it best: “To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”

Sounds like the soul of soccer is much more than the sum of its parts.