These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About

Tim Flight - July 5, 2018

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
A game of Calcio Fiorentino being played outside the church of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy,1688. Wikimedia Commons

The Early Modern Period

The (lack of) rules of football changed little in the Early Modern Period. Alexander Barclay‘s poem from 1510 describes the game as played in his native South East England: ‘they get the bladder and blowe it great and thin, with many beanes and peason put within, It ratleth, shineth and soundeth clere and fayre, While it is throwen and caste up in the eyre, Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite, with foote and hande the bladder for to smite, if it fall to the ground they lifte it up again… [they] Overcometh the winter with driving the foote-ball’.

Others were decidedly unimpressed with the game. In 1531, Thomas Elyot had the following to say about football: ‘foote balle, wherin is nothinge but beastly furie and extreme violence; wherof procedeth hurte, and consequently rancour and malice do remaine with them that be wounded’. Despite its continuing thuggishness, it seems to have found royal patronage, as Henry VIII, in slimmer days, had a pair of leather shoes for playing football made in 1526, the earliest reference to football boots (cleats). The oldest football in existence, a pig’s bladder encased in leather from Stirling Castle, Scotland, survives from this period.

However, it is in the Early Modern Period that an alternative to so-called mob football is recorded, and the first instance since the days of Cuju of something resembling modern soccer. In a late 15th-century text on the miracles of Henry VI of England, a game is described taking place in Cawston, Nottinghamshire: ‘young men, in country sport, propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air but by striking it and rolling it along the ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet… kicking in opposite directions’, on a pitch with marked boundaries.

References to similarly primitive versions of modern soccer continue through the Early Modern Period, and an interesting variant was simultaneously taking place in Italy. Calcio Fiorentino (‘Florentine Football’, depicted above) was played from the late 15th century on piazzas covered with sand. Each team had 27 players, and the aim was to score more goals than the opposition using any part of the body. Although there was a referee, violence was very much a part of the game. Since there was only one goal and four goalkeepers at each end of the pitch, it was first necessary to incapacitate the opposition.

Once enough opposition players had been beaten or pinned to the ground, goals could be scored, with the teams switching ends after each. Despite the necessity of street-brawling, no substitutions were allowed. Mercifully, the games only lasted 50 minutes. As well as being played, surprisingly, exclusively by aristocrats, Calcio Fiorentino also began the peculiar relationship between popes and football, as several Renaissance popes were known to have played, and a pitch was installed in Vatican City. In more recent times, John Paul II (1920-2005) was a fanatical soccer fan and a fantastic goalkeeper in his youth, regularly watching Cracovia Cracow.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
The first man to ban football, Edward II, receives his crown, Northern England, c.1307-1327. Wikimedia Commons

Opposition to Early Soccer

Unsurprisingly, the type of football played in medieval and Early Modern times had a chequered history with the law. Football was first banned altogether in 1314 when the merchants of London complained to King Edward II (above) that the riotous game was disrupting their trade and causing general mayhem. The royal decree stated that ‘there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.’

Edward II’s law does not seem to have been very effective, since football was banned a further 30 times between 1314 and 1667. Even Henry VIII, a keen sportsman and owner of the first-recorded pair of football boots, had had enough of the violence of the game in 1540 and issued a largely-ignored ban on the sport. However, not every ban was inspired by the disapproval of football’s brutality, but simply because of its popularity. The great warrior king Edward III banned football in 1349 because it distracted men from practicing archery, and ‘national defense depend[ed] upon such bowmen’.

Opposition to football was also common amongst the pious, with the exception of popes (see above). The Bishop of Tréguier not only banned football in 1440 but threatened to excommunicate anyone caught playing it in his diocese, describing the game as ‘dangerous and pernicious’. Oliver Cromwell, once a noted footballer during his days at Oxford University, banned the sport (along with almost all recreational activities, the miserable git) when he became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth in 1653. The game was also used as an insult by Shakespeare: in King Lear, Kent calls an opprobrious servant a ‘base football player’.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
Eton Field Game by Henry G. Brooks depicts a form of football match, England, c. 1890. The National Football Museum

English Public Schools and the Game

Despite the embryonic versions of the modern game of soccer that took place contemporaneously amongst the mass of brutal, mob-based, versions, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a set of rules was actually enforced on football. For this innovation, we have the elite schools of England to thank. From the late 16th century onwards, English Public Schools (called private schools in the rest of the world) began to notice the passion and occasional skill required to play football successfully, and saw an opportunity to form the characters of the boys they were tasked with educating at great expense.

The pioneer of this civilizing of football was Richard Mulcaster (c.1531-1611), a former student at Eton College who served as a headmaster at Merchant Taylors’ School and St Paul’s School. He differentiated football from other ball-games involving arms and hands, organized boys into teams, and made them play according to rules. In his 1581 Positions Wherein Those Primitive Circumstances Be Examined, Which Are Necessarie for the Training up of Children, Mulcaster argued passionately for the educational value and physical and mental benefits of playing the game, and sport is still a vital part of private education in England today.

Mulcaster’s game involving kicking the ball was far from the only iteration of football taking place at public schools. Other schools had their own variations, which bore a closer resemblance to medieval football in permitting players to use their hands. This eventually led to a schism when the rules of football were written down in Eton, Aldenham, and others, over which limbs were permissible in the game. The game of Rugby, named after the school, was allegedly invented when William Webb Ellis picked up a football during a Mulcaster-esque game and ran towards the opposition goal in 1823.

Although the benefits of physical activity for children cannot be debated, the importance of football for character development took a ridiculous twist in the Victorian period. The Victorians are often lampooned for their publicly anti-sex stance, and one of the great fears of the period was the problem of masturbation. The Reverend Edward Thring, the eminent and powerful headmaster of Uppingham School, believed he had come up with a solution to the onanism epidemic facing Victorian Britain. He identified masturbation as symptomatic of weakness, and argued that the best way to stop boys ‘self-polluting’ was to toughen them up through football.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
West Bromwich Albion, winners of the 1892 FA Cup, pose with the trophy, Birmingham, England, 1892. Birmingham Mail

The Foundation of the English Football Association

The next milestone in our whistle-stop (no pun intended) history of soccer is the foundation of the world’s first football association in England in 1863. Although rules had been instituted earlier in the century by individual public schools, when boys from different alma matas met at university the discrepancies in the rules for football they were used to lead to mass confusion. The University of Cambridge had instituted its own set of regulations, known as Cambridge Rules, in response to the problem in 1848, but a rival set, Sheffield Rules, appeared a decade later, and there was yet more befuddlement.

Thus on 26th October 1863, a final attempt at uniformity was made, and ultimately achieved, over the course of several days. Eleven football clubs and schools sent representatives to the Freemasons’ Tavern on Great Queen Street, London, for a historic meeting which changed soccer forever. A set of rules were agreed upon, which have changed in some respects in the intervening near-160 years, and the first-ever game of Association Football, as the sport is officially known, took place on 19th December 1863 between Barnes and Richmond, rival suburbs of London. The game ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw.

The Barnes-Richmond showdown was not an official match, but took place because new members of the FA were impatient to try out the new, official version of the game. The official unveiling was actually on 9th January 1864, at which a laudably inclusive and egalitarian toast was drunk: ‘success to football, irrespective of class or creed’. However, the toast does not seem to have included women’s soccer, since this was banned at FA-affiliated grounds in 1921 on the dubious basis that ‘football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. The ban thankfully ended in 1971.

As well as controlling all leagues of soccer in England (until the Premier League, a semi-independent competition, was founded in 1992), the FA also introduced its flagship competition, the FA Cup, in 1871. This competition, into which all clubs, professional and amateur alike, can enter, is a knock-out affair in which teams are drawn to play one another over one or two matches at random. The first FA Cup final was won by Wanderers FC, sneaking a 1-0 victory over Royal Engineers in front of 2,000 people. The competition was instrumental in helping football to reach its current popularity.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
FIFA’s imposing headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, built in 2006. Wikimedia Commons


For most people, the name ‘FIFA’ is synonymous with the EA Sports game franchise that bears it. However, the foundation of the organization – an acronym for Fédération Internationale de Football Association – is second only to the foundation of the English FA in importance to modern soccer. Second in importance, that is, because FIFA was set up to govern soccer being played between countries, upholding the rules set out by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which was founded on the regulations set out by the English FA. However, since its formation, FIFA has been pivotal to the game’s global popularity.

FIFA was founded in 1904 at the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques, Paris. It was founded because of the increasing popularity of soccer, due to the FA and England’s colonial influence spreading the game around the Empire, and the need to ensure that every country played within the same framework of rules. Originally FIFA was exclusively for European countries, but from 1909 membership was made available to the rest of the world due to popular demand. Though FIFA was threatened only a decade after its foundation by WW1 Breaking out, the world’s love of soccer ensured its survival.

Aside from the video games, the name FIFA is most associated with the World Cup (see below). The great popularity of the tournament meant that FIFA members swelled from the original 8 in 1904 to 73 in 1950, somehow increasing from the 51 who were members before WW2 despite simmering mutual hostilities continuing after the war. Today there are 211 members of FIFA, and incredibly only 103 staff running the whole operation, which had revenues of $734 million in 2017. FIFA makes most of its money through selling marketing rights, sponsorship, hosting tournaments, and selling broadcast rights across the world.

If the photograph of its headquarters above makes you think of the lair of a Bond villain, you’re not far off. Unfortunately, with such vast amounts of money involved, FIFA has long been accused of corruption. There have long been claims of bribery and corruption, with the current World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar particularly suspicious. In 2015, 14 FIFA officials were indicted for ‘rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted’ corruption by the FBI, and a further 16 were charged later that year for being ‘involved in criminal schemes involving well over $200m (£132m) in bribes and kickbacks’.

The organization’s power is truly terrifying. At World Cup 2014, FIFA made the host nation, Brazil, overturn a law banning alcohol at sporting events for the duration of the tournament. At every World Cup, the huge amount of money FIFA makes is exempt from taxation, losing the Brazilian government $250 million in 2014. At South Africa 2010, FIFA was even allowed to install 56 ‘World Cup Courts’ to try and sentence offenders. Appallingly, during the tournament, two Zimbabwean muggers were arrested on a Thursday, and the next day began 15-year prison sentences for their crime. Undeniably scary stuff.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
The Uruguay National Football Team, winners of the first World Cup in 1930, which the country also hosted, Uruguay, 1930. The Football Times

The World Cup

Despite most people’s understandable dislike for FIFA in the light of the previous section, it is hard not to love the World Cup, a tournament bringing together a disparate range of teams, peoples, and cultures, all fanatical about the sport, simply to watch competitive soccer matches. The World Cup was set up in response to the increasing popularity of international fixtures, in order to give the so-called ‘friendly’ matches more of a competitive element. Additionally, although soccer had been an Olympic Sport on and off since 1900, it was only played by amateur athletes from countries within the Olympic framework.

The original trophy was named after Jules Rimet, the FIFA President responsible for setting up the tournament. It was stolen from a public exhibition in London during England’s hosting of the tournament in 1966, but fortunately, it was found just a week later, wrapped in newspaper and stuffed in a hedge, by a dog named Pickles, who received a lifetime supply of dog food as a reward. Jules Rimet’s original rules stipulated that any team winning the tournament three times could keep the trophy, and so when Brazil did just that in 1970, the current prize was commissioned.

The first World Cup was hosted by Uruguay, who also won the tournament (see above). The tournament consists of teams drawn into groups of 4, 2 of which progress to a knock-out stage which leads to the final. It has been held every 4 years ever since, with a gap between 1938 and 1950 due to World War II. The most successful team in World Cup history is Brazil, who have won 5 tournaments, followed by Germany and Italy with 4 each. The World Cup’s all-time top scorer is Germany’s Miroslav Klose, who scored 16 goals between 2002 and 2014.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
The English National Team won the World Cup in 1966, which was also hosted by the country, the trophy here raised aloft by the captain, Bobby Moore. Wikimedia Commons

The Home of Football

According to FIFA’s website, England is the home of football, and in the light of the country’s role in defining the modern rules of soccer, it is hard to contest this claim. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that England has only won a single international trophy, World Cup 1966, which is also the only World Cup that the country has ever hosted. The final at Wembley saw England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time. Geoff Hurst of West Ham is still the only player to score a hat-trick (3 goals) in a World Cup Final.

The team has never reached a final since, and only once made the semi-finals, at Italia ’90. They have had slightly more success in the European Championships, which has more or less the same format as the World Cup but is only open to European nations, reaching the semi-finals twice in 1968 and 1996, but have never won it. This lack of success is mind-boggling, given England’s official FIFA status as the home of football, the English Premier League is the richest in the world, and the vast sums invested in the development of young players.

However, the game remains the most popular sport in England, despite the inevitable misery of watching the national team labor around pitches and lose to technically inferior opposition. For example, at Euro 2016, England were knocked out of the competition by Iceland, a country with a population of only 334, 252 at the time of the tournament, and several semi-professional players. Nevertheless, the popularity of the sport has attracted enormous foreign investment in teams such as Chelsea (owned by the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich) and Manchester City (owned by Sheikh Mansour, prime minister of the UAE), and subsequently a global fan-base.

English club teams have fared somewhat better than the national team against foreign opposition. Club sides have won the Champions League (an annual competition between the top-finishing clubs from European countries) and its equivalent antecedents 12 times since 1956, and a further 12 others have won the other, less-prestigious, European Competition (competed for by teams who were not quite good enough to qualify for the Champions League or who won domestic cup competitions). However, these statistics are far less impressive when you consider that Real Madrid of Spain alone have won the Champions League 12 times in the same period!

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
Pelé (right) and Diego Maradona publicly bury the hatchet at Euro 2016, held in France. 90 Minutes

Greatest Players

Everyone has heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo spoke of the greatest players of all time, but as this is a history list, we will be ignoring them altogether. It is also hard to determine who is the best soccer player of all time in and of itself, given the great advances in sports science since the 1990s, which gives Messi and Ronaldo a rather unfair advantage over players who lived at a time when smoking was recommended by doctors and a heap of steak and fries was thought to be suitable pre-match meal. Nonetheless, let’s have a go…

Pelé is a name that is deservedly familiar even amongst people who hate soccer. Born in 1940, he grew up in impoverished conditions in the city of Bauru, São Paulo, and was so poor that he learned to play soccer with a grapefruit and a sock stuffed with newspaper. Aged 15, Pelé was taken by his father, a former soccer player, to try out for the famous Brazilian team, Santos, and the rest is history. A year later, he was the top scorer in the Brazilian league, and went on to score 1,000 career goals, winning 3 World Cups.

The most serious contender for Pelé’s title as greatest of all time comes from Brazil’s greatest rivals, Argentina. Diego Maradona was short, fat, and only effective with one foot, but was also undeniably brilliant. His position as a creative midfielder meant that he did not score anywhere near as many goals as Pelé, but his incredible skill, range of passing, and habit of scoring incredible solo goals have secured his legendary status. Like Pelé, Maradona grew up in poverty and made his professional debut in his mid-teens, but went on to play in Europe for Barcelona, Napoli, and Sevilla.

Comparing the two is hard, given their differing positions, and often the debate comes down to the pair’s contrasting personalities. Where Pelé was known to be a gentleman on the pitch and has been praised for his humanitarian work since retiring, Maradona was known for employing dirty tricks to win games. At the 1986 World Cup, for instance, he scored a blatant handball to knock England out of the tournament, which he cheekily nicknamed ‘the Hand of God‘. At Napoli, Maradona also fraternized with the Mafia and picked up a cocaine habit that earned him a 15-month ban.

Another true gentleman, Bobby Moore captained England at the 1966 World Cup. Despite an incredible drinking habit, Moore was the model professional and is seen by many, including Pelé, as the greatest defender of all time. He made his name at West Ham (along with Geoff Hurst, scorer of the hat-trick in the final, and England’s other goal-scorer, Martin Peters). He is remembered as an elegant central defender who used his innate understanding of the game to compensate for his lack of pace. Tragically, Bobby Moore died of testicular cancer in 1993, all but forgotten by the football world.

Also worth mentioning is the great Hungarian playmaker, Ferenc Puskás, captain of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ (Hungarian national team) of the 1950s. Before a game against England in 1953, Puskás overheard the opposition referring to him as a ‘little fat chap’. He responded by scoring twice in a 6-3 victory. The game is known as ‘The Match of the Century’, because Hungary’s forward-thinking tactics, to which Puskás was fundamental, changed how teams played football. He later played for Real Madrid, becoming one of their greatest players, and Spain, having taken Spanish Citizenship due to the perilous conditions in Soviet-ruled Hungary.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
Andrés Escobar, whose murder is widely believed to have been in response to the own goal he scored at USA 94, pictured at the tournament. The Bogota Post

Football and Crime

With so much money changing hands and national pride at stake, it is little wonder that football has a long association with crime. The most visible element of this is football hooliganism, which still blights the so-called ‘Beautiful Game’ to this day. Fan violence and sport date back thousands of years, with Pliny the Younger complaining about spectators fighting each other at chariot races, allegiances to riders in which, ludicrously, were decided by the fan’s favorite color. Unfortunately, sporting violence is yet-worse when it isn’t just favorite colors at stake, and some ridiculous fans literally view international fixtures as war.

But hooliganism is not confined merely to international games. Club sides in every country have hated rivals, sometimes local but often simply because of a perceived injustice many years before, and some fans take it upon themselves to beat up, and even kill, fans of the opposition team. England has the worst reputation for hooliganism, which peaked with the tragic Heysel Disaster in 1985 when fighting between Liverpool and Juventus fans led to a concrete wall collapsing and crushing 39 people to death. Fortunately, football authorities are much better at preventing such heartbreaking events today, though fights still occur.

In 1981, the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly quipped that ‘someone said to me “To you, football is a matter of life or death!” and I said “Listen, it’s more important than that”‘. This became disturbingly literal in the aftermath of Colombia’s exit from the 1994 World Cup. The captain, Andrés Escobar, scored his own goal against the United States that knocked Columbia out of the tournament. Barely a week later, Escobar was killed in his car by gunmen, one of whom shouted ‘¡Gol!’ (‘Goal!’) after every bullet. The murder is widely believed to have been because of the own goal.

Another criminal element in soccer is match-fixing. Typically, people bet great sums on the outcome of games, and players or match officials are bribed to ensure that the punter wins. A series of mysterious floodlight failures in England in the late 1990s were even traced to Chinese betting syndicates. In 2006, several of the biggest Italian teams were found guilty of rigging matches by selecting ‘favorable’ referees. As a consequence, Juventus were stripped of the 2004-05 Italian league title, relegated to the third division, and deducted 30 points, with their general manager, Luciano Moggi, banned for life from football.

These 12 Important Pieces on the History of Soccer May Help You Understand What All the Fuss is About
George Weah, the President of Liberia, is also a three-time African Footballer of the Year winner, and was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995. AS English

Football and Politics

Soccer and politics have a long history, dating back to the Inclosure Acts in England (17th century onwards). Landowners, responding to changes in agriculture requiring large swathes of land to be fenced off for sheep farming, removed families from the land they had farmed for centuries as tenants. Protests were swiftly and brutally put down. In response, many communities resorted to using football matches as a cover for riots, as for instance at Kettering in 1740. In this match, 500-a-side in line with the rules of the early football games described above, fences and mills were torn down by ‘players’.

Where most teams have rivalries because of their geographical proximity, a player controversially changing teams, or because of a bad refereeing decision, the enmity between Barcelona and Real Madrid runs deeper. The notorious fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco, used to attend Real Madrid matches, and brutally put down Catalan protests in Barcelona on his rise to power in the Spanish Civil War, executing 10,000 people. He is also rumored to have intervened in the transfer of the great Alfredo Di Stefano, who was due to join Barcelona but eventually opted for Real Madrid. Relations have never recovered, understandably.

More recently, when Catalonia voted for independence from Spain in Autumn 2017, Spanish police arrested separatist leaders and violently subdued protestors. In response, Barcelona closed their stadium to fans for their league match against Las Palmas, leaving the 99,354-capacity Nou Camp stadium empty. Shortly afterward, Barcelona fans unveiled a banner reading ‘Welcome to the Catalan Republic’ in the Champions League match against Juventus, an event watched by millions across the world. Soccer matches around the world are frequently the stage for political messages to be displayed, including less-wholesome anti-immigration banners during the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe of 2015.

But let us end on a positive note, with George Weah. Weah is one of the most successful and celebrated footballers of recent decades, being crowned World Footballer of the Year in 1995 and African Footballer of the Year three times, winning numerous cups and titles with his various teams along the way. After retiring, Weah entered politics, running for President of Liberia in 2005, but his lack of experience and education saw him lose to a Harvard-educated rival. Undeterred, Weah went back to school, got a degree from a US college, and was finally elected President in January 2018.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Londonist – What Happened To The Teams That Competed In The First Ever FA Cup?

Wired – Everything You Need to Know About FIFA’s Corruption Scandal

VOX – Let’s Count All The Ways FIFA Is Corrupt

CNN – World Cup Beer Battle Brewing Between Brazil And FIFA

The Guardian – World Cup Theft: ‘Gangster And Brother Stole Trophy In 1966’

Bleacher Report – Hooliganism in English Football

Republic World – Why Were Juventus Relegated? All You Need To Know About The Calciopoli Scandal

BBC Sports – Calciopoli: The Scandal That Rocked Italy And Left Juventus In Serie B

Hungry Today – On This Day – In 1953 Hungary Trashed England In “Match Of The Century”

BBC News – England V Hungary – A Football Match That Started A Revolution

Be Soccer – George Weah- The Only African Winner Of The Ballon d’Or


Child, David. “More than a game: How politics and football interplay in Spain.” Al Jazeera, April 18th 2018.

Dasgupta, Shirsho. “Want to understand politics in the last 25 years? Look at football.” The Guardian, December 14th 2017.

“George Weah: From footballer to Liberia’s president.” BBC News, January 22nd 2018.

Heatley, Michael. A History of Football. Stroud: Green Umbrella, 2004.

Kuper, Simon. Football Against the Enemy. London: Orion, 2003.

F. P. Magoun, Jr. “Football in Medieval England and Middle-English Literature.” The American Historical Review, 35, no. 1 (1929): 33-45.

Marples, Morris. A History of Football. London: Secker and Warburg, 1954.