The Origins of Football (Soccer)

Football, also known as soccer, is a ball game played by two teams of eleven players. It is arguably the world’s most popular team sport, played by everyone from children in streets to multi-millionaire professional players. The current version of the game originated in Britain, and then spread across the world.

Origins of Modern Football

Although contemporary football evolved during the modern period, games involving teams and a ball dated back to ancient times among different cultures.
Britain had many types of ‘folk football’ games during the medieval period, and the most famous variety involved two massive teams trying to get the ball into a target goal at either sides of a town. The teams were frequently just large mobs, the games were violent, and the score low. There was no standardization of rules, and local variation was paramount. Almost anything was allowed. Social interaction was the order of the day. Shrove Tuesday was a particularly popular day for a match, and countries like Germany and Italy had their own local versions. However, as Britain industrialised, and as the cities grew, folk football declined as new worries about space, leisure time, the legal problems of the games grew and a reaction against the violence.

The Rules are Formed

Modern football evolved out of folk football in the nineteenth century. A number of English public schools had adopted forms of football to be played by their pupils in the winter months.
The rules still varied, and there were problems when these students went to universities and attempted to carry on with the sport. In 1843 there was the first attempt to produce a standard set of rules for everyone, and they were written up at Cambridge University. The ‘Cambridge Rules’ were adopted in 1848, and spread further as students graduated and took the rules with them to adult football clubs.
However, these rules still involved handling the ball. In 1863 twelve football clubs (including some schools) in London and its environs met in the Freemason’s Tavern and drew up a revised set of rules. Blackheath quit the discussions over a rule about where you couldn’t kick, but the remaining eleven finalised the rules, and these formed a keystone of the newly created Football Association, which aimed to govern the game and establish the same rules across Britain. Handling was now reduced to the goalkeeper, violence was greatly reduced.

The rules were still not universal in 1870, when the FA formed, and many regions kept their own sets of rules for the next few years. Chief among these were the Sheffield clubs, which proudly operated their own system. In 1871 the FA created a club up competition, and fifteen teams entered. By 1887 the FA system had grown to include one hundred and twenty eight clubs, and Britain had a largely uniform set of rules.

Football and the Working Class

Football soon emerged as something other than the preserve of public schools. As urbanization killed off folk football and many other former working class pastimes (including bloodsports), the vast body of urban workers found they frequently had Saturday afternoons off and wanted something entertaining to do. Watching, or in some cases playing, the new form of football spread quickly, and to large numbers of people. This was aided by trade unions, churches, non-public schools and other bodies creating their own teams. The rising literacy rate allowed for greater coverage of sports in the media, and the post-industrial transport network of trains allowed teams and their supporters to travel quickly and widely for matches. In twenty five years the average attendance at a professional football match more than quadrupled.

Professional Football

The FA rules called for players to be amateurs: that is, not paid solely for playing football. But in the 1870s some clubs began charging for entry to a match, and players began to demand money to make up for the time they spent training and playing. The inevitable clash came in 1884, when the FA threw two clubs out of its system for using professionals, and again in 1885 when it was forced by the weight of common practice to accept payments. Where the game had begun on public school fields and then been formed by London, now the major industrial cities of the north came to prominence, able to funnel their large number of supporters and combined financial might into better players. In 1888 the Football League was formed in the north and midlands, providing a format for competition, and other divisions and teams followed as the geography expanded, a ‘Southern League’ ending up as part of the Football League.

The World Game

Football organised on the British model now spread to European countries. Holland formed a league in 1889, Germany in 1903, and although France was playing English football since the 1870s, their first professional league formed in 1932. By then, football was spreading across the world, and had ceased being a British, or European, phenomenon: FIFA, an international organisation designed to organise world football, was founded in 1904, albeit initially only of European nations. Britain and FIFA argued over the next decades, with the ‘home nation’ in and out of international favour.


Some folk football matches survived into the late twentieth century. Orkney holds one which is played across the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Read more here.

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