I confess I haven’t always been a football (soccer) fan. I grew up in the Midwest, and while I had heard of it, I’d never seen a match nor known anyone who played. The Kansas City Chiefs were my football team. It wasn’t until I met my husband, Dave, who’d played in college, that I learned about the game. Early on, it was called football in the U.S. until the name caused confusion with American football, so around 1910, soccer emerged as the name of the game in the U.S. But I live in Europe, so I will use the term football for the rest of this article.
PBS carried a show back in the 1980s called Soccer Made in Germany, hosted by Toby Charles, and that is when the bug bit me. And I’m not alone, FIFA, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, claims the sport is enjoyed by over 240 million people.
I spent this cold, snowy weekend rooted to the television watching the national team qualifiers for the 2024 Euro Championship. I’ve learned to love the game. When we lived in Italy, I followed Serie A rooting for Napoli. Here in Germany, it’s the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich. While living in Crete, we drove to Iraklion to watch the Greek National Team. And we follow English and Scottish Premiere leagues, though we don’t always cheer for the same team!
So what is this game? And how did it start? That’s a complicated question. Most will credit English Public Schools in the mid-1800s with its development. And in terms of the modern game, I would have to agree. The first football association was formed in England in 1863. Not long after, around 1874, two school teachers brought the game to Germany. English immigrants took it across the Atlantic to America.
But evidence of a game played by kicking a round object through a makeshift goal is hard to trace through archaeology. It seems like the simplest form of playing a game and can probably be found throughout the world. However, there are records of similar games played as far back as 2,500 years ago. And who knows, maybe longer? Records show a similar game played in China, Greece, Rome, and possibly further back by Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs played a game where the object was to hit the ball into a wall behind the opposing team by only using your hips and butt to direct the ball. Wow!
Early on, several games were referred to as football, but some, such as those played by the early Greeks and Romans, were more similar to rugby. Others played by Native American tribes used racquets or bats and were the forerunners of Lacrosse. Mary Miller, an art professor at Yale University, has studied the game. She states, “The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica.” She believes they were playing a similar game, from Mexico to Costa Rica, involving a heavy ball made from tree resin long before Columbus “discovered” them. Archaeologists have found 16-pound rubber balls dating back to these early periods.
As transportation improved, people in the 19th century had more leisure time than ever before. And by the 1840s, many British public schools had teams enabling tournaments to be held amongst teams that played by the same rules. Though two sets of regulations dominated play; the Sheffield Football Club, which allowed a free kick following a foul, and the Cambridge University rules, which banned carrying the ball. By the 1870s, the players banded together under the London Football Association. At this point, teams were recruiting widely and paid working-class players.
By 1885, they agreed to allow professional players, and interest in the sport skyrocketed. As it spread across Europe, the need for a governing body was necessary, and FIFA was formed in 1904.
By the late 19th century, only a few domestic leagues existed. Football received a significant boost when it was recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee in 1900. In 1930, the international governing body (FIFA) held its own competition, the World Cup. This event has occurred every four years since, except in 1942 and 1946, because of WWII. The UEFA European Championships, known as the Euros, began in 1958 and is also held every four years between World Cup competitions.
Today, 211 national associations are members of FIFA, with six confederations based on geographic locations. And the game is still evolving. Penalty kicks were added in 1891. And red and yellow cards were first issued for fouls in the 1970 World Cup finals. In 1992, goalkeepers were banned from handling a ball deliberately passed back from a teammate. Tackles from behind became red-card offenses in 1998. The most recent additions included the use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee), which is now used to review controversial incidents, such as offsides, occurring at the goal ends of the field.
To me, one of the significant improvements to the game has been allowing women to play. The first recorded match was in 1895, but it wasn’t until 1969 that the WFA (Woman’s Football Association) was formed. In 1971, the FA lifted the ban on women playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs. The USA hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1999, with a record-breaking crowd of over 90,000 attending the final match. They now have their own club teams and, since 2005, have competed in UEFA Champions League tournaments. These games can be just as exciting!
With the only requirements being a ball, a place to kick it around, and some type of makeshift goal, is it any wonder the game was invented all those years ago? Well, I’m off to see who is playing tonight in the next round of Euro Qualifiers. I’ll try not to cheer too loudly!
Are you a fan? If so, who’s YOUR team?