Soccer, or association football, has many names: bollfoer in Finland, calcio in Italy, fussball in Austria, fútbol
in Argentina, futebol in Brazil, labdarugó in Hungary,
podosfairiki in Greece, soccer in the United States, and
voetbal in the Netherlands—but the game remains essentially the same. Today, more men and women play
and watch association football than any other sport.
The world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA) has occasionally claimed more members than the United Nations.
Its membership has increased from 7 in its foundation
year of 1904 to 73 by 1950 and 170 in 1990. The World
Cup, as one of the world’s most prestigious sporting
events, is televised in every nation.
The modern game was invented by the British in the
19th century. There, the rules were codified, the first association football clubs were established, a regular calendar of fixtures was arranged, and competition was
organized. The modern game was a by-product of the
growth of the commercial, manufacturing, and professional middle class in Britain, especially that of the private secondary schools (known as public schools) set
up for the education of their sons. Team games in particular had become a defining characteristic of public
schools, and the pursuit of physical fitness had become
something of a cult. Games were also supposed to teach
certain qualities of character, curbing rampant individualism in the cause of one’s house and later school
and, after that, club, region, and country.
British public schools, however, tended to develop
their own unique forms of football, so a single rule
book was needed. In 1863, the Football Association
(FA) was formed with the aim of producing a single
game whose rules would be accepted by all. When participants could not agree about how far to allow the use
of the hands and whether hacking (kicking an opponent who was running with the ball across the shins)
should be permitted, adherents of those clubs that supported these “manly” features withdrew from the discussions and in 1871 formed the Rugby Football Union
(RFU). The rest had formed the FA back in 1863. The
FA and the RFU lie at the core of all modern football
The knock-out cup was copied from the house competition at Harrow School. In a knock-out cup, the
names of the teams are put into a hat and drawn out in
pairs. They play each other—that is a cup-tie—on the
ground of the club whose name was drawn first. The winner goes through to the next round. Eventually only
two will be left, and they will meet in the cup final. This
competition both reflected and stimulated the growth
of the game, especially in the provinces.
Cup-tie football changed the nature of the game in
Britain. City, county, and national cup competitions
built on the traditional rivalries between local communities and provided opportunities for excitement and
gambling. Newspapers were quick to notice and promote the new sport, which large crowds were prepared
to pay to see. Relatively high and regular wages, inexpensive transport both within and between cities, and
the Saturday half-holiday all combined to make a fortnightly visit to a match well within the finances of
working men. Many clubs began to pay their players,
and there was a regular migration of young Scottish
workers to English clubs. Professionalism in football
was legalized in England in 1885 and in Scotland in
1893. In 1888, 12 leading clubs, all from towns in the
Midlands or the North, banded together to play a regular schedule of home and away matches, at the end of
which the club with the best record would be called
champion. They called it the Football League (FL). At
the other end of the spectrum, association football was
introduced into the curriculum of the elementary
schools by teachers in the 1880s.
Rules and Play
In its organized form association football is played between two teams of 11 players a side on a rectangular
field not more than 110 meters (120 yards) long and
usually 69–91 meters (75–100 yards) wide. The object
of the game is to score a goal by kicking or heading (but
not using the hands to propel) the ball over the opponent’s goal line into a goal. The duration of the game is
of two equal halves of 45 minutes. It is a simple game
with only 17 rules, the most important of which deal
with offside and the definition of and penalties for
fouls and misconduct.
Although association football was a team game in
1870, the emphasis on the individual was strong. Once
in possession of the ball, the player tried to keep it by
running forward and dribbling it toward the opposing
goal. The first specialist position mentioned in the laws
of the game was that of goalkeeper, but only as that
player on the defending side who, for the time being,
was nearest to his own goal. The big change came with
the adoption of the passing game with the ball deliberately and systematically being passed between members of the same side as they moved toward the goal.
This new style underlined what seems obvious today:
that each team had a back, middle, and front section.
By the early 1880s, a forward had been withdrawn
to make room for a third halfback, and a 2–3–5 formation was established. This formation was to dominate
world association football until well into the interwar
Postwar changes in the patterns of play have also
been largely connected with a determination to
strengthen the defense. It is not clear who invented the
4–2–4 formation. It was the Brazilian team, which
spectacularly won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958,
who not only introduced Pelé but also played two center-halves, a double stopper of Bellini and Orlando, and
two players in midfield. This strategy made conversion
from defense to attack very quick, but it also made the
two midfielders work very hard. England turned the
4–2–4 formation into the 4–3–3 in the mid-1960s by
withdrawing an attacker to bolster the midfield. For the
first time, the number of players whose primary duty
was defense outnumbered those whose main role was
Most leading teams now play variants of the formations 4–4–2 or 5–4–1, but association football has remained a game of fluid, flexible systems, a game where
the individual can shine, a game of continuous movement of ball and players rather than one of prearranged set plays. An obsession with defense can produce tedious spectacles for the neutral observer, but,
for those who identify with the teams, association football retains its ability to seize the emotions.
Young Britons who went abroad to work or study took
association football with them and taught the sport to
local young men. European businessmen and students
who traveled to Britain for education or training purposes were introduced to the sport, and they established their own clubs when they returned home.
Swiss, Austrian, or German nationals who had traveled
as engineers or merchants spread the game in Southern Europe.
The British community in South America started
association football mainly in the large cities of Buenos
Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, especially Buenos Aires. It was a popular spectator sport in
the big cities and by the 1920s had shifted from a pastime for the elites to an opportunity for poor young
men to win fame and fortune.
International matches beyond Britain began.
Uruguay and Argentina met for the first time in 1901
and initiated what was to become the most often played international fixture. Austria met Hungary for
the first time in 1902, and France and Belgium in 1904.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Associations
(FIFA) was formed in 1904. The first regional association football organization was in South America. The
idea of an organization for the region bore fruit in
1916, when the Confederación Sudamericana de fútbol
(CONMEBOL) was set up and the first official South
American championship was held in Buenos Aires.
Uruguay won that competition and, along with Argentina, has dominated a tournament known as the
Copa America since 1975.
The first international tournament began in 1927,
ended in 1930, and involved five countries—Austria,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland—
playing each other at home and away.
With most association football remaining at the
amateur level, the first tournament that might hope to
produce a world’s best national team was the Olympic
Games. England won in 1908 and 1912, by which time
11 European countries had entered teams. After World
War I, professionalism began to develop in places outside the British Isles. By the mid-1920s three of the
strongest European footballing nations—Austria,
Czechoslovakia, and Hungary—had professional
leagues, which disqualified their best players from the
Olympics. Britain’s best were also professionals, and
there was a good deal of suspicion that Uruguay, who
had surprisingly but spectacularly won the Olympic
football competition in 1924 and 1928, were also concealed professionals.
Brazil is the only country to appear in every championship between 1930 and 1994, winning a record
four times. It has often been said that, after their own
country, everyone supports the Brazilian team, mainly
due to the skill and style that their players have, above
all others, regularly brought to the sport. This extraordinary ability was particularly exemplified by the 1970
winning team including Pelé (Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, 1940–). In Brazil association football is a powerful source of national identity. Some Brazilians compared the third World Cup win in 1970 with Neil
Armstrong’s walk on the moon. France’s jubilance in its
victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup can have
been matched only by the Brazilians’ disappointment
over their loss.
New Soccer Worlds
Association football had been introduced to Russia as a
summer game by British, German, and other foreign
workers in the 1890s. A national association was established in 1912 together with a short-lived national
championship, in which the teams were allowed not
more than three Englishmen.
After the Russian Revolution, association football,
like other competitive sport, was criticized for its tendency toward commercialization and specialization
and for turning the socialist masses into spectators
rather than players. By the 1930s, however, competitive
sport in general and association football particularly
seemed ideal recreation for urban workers. A national
league was set up in 1936 partly in the hope that it
would reinforce a sense of cohesion in the huge, rambling country. The Russians did not participate in the
Olympics until 1952 or the World Cup until 1958, but
did join the Fédération Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA) in 1946. In 1949, the USSR launched
a policy to achieve world supremacy in major sports,
partly to show off Soviet athletes in a friendly environment but perhaps more to demonstrate the superiority
of the Soviet system. Their insistence that their players
were amateurs allowed these countries to dominate the
Olympic Football Tournament between the Helsinki
Games in 1952 and the Montreal Games in 1976. The
Union of European Football Associations did not call
the players of Czechoslovakia and Hungary professionals until 1988. Association football was the most popular game among the Eastern European workers and remains so in the unsettling period ushered in by the
breakdown of the Soviet system. In the former Soviet
Union there are 4.8 million registered players. Only the
reunited Germany has more.
The United States was the land without association
football. Yet the American Football Association (AFA)
had been set up in 1884, the sport was played in several
East Coast towns and cities, and the first international
matches had been played with Canada in 1885 and
1886. Still, association football flourished largely
among recent immigrants. It had no state support and
was played in few schools or colleges.
In the 1960s, association football began to change
from a working-class sport played by immigrants to a
middle-class and suburban recreation played by the
young in the better high schools and colleges. It also
began to be developed as a game for girls and women.
The year 1967 saw the creation of a national league resembling those in Europe and South America, except
that foreign teams were imported to represent U.S.
cities. The popularity of the National American Soccer
League (NASL) was enormously boosted when Pelé
came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in 1975.
Ten years later the NASL had disbanded. Yet a
sports-mad United States was awarded the 1994 World
Cup by FIFA with the assurance that a national professional league would follow. It began its first season in
the summer of 1996.
Association football has grown dramatically in
Africa since World War II, but its development remains
hampered by economic and political upheavals. The
colonial powers, especially Britain and France, took the
sport to Africa, but before independence only well-todo Africans were likely to get the chance to play. Until
the coming of free education, association football was
only for the African elite.
In 1957, there were still only four independent football associations—Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and
the Sudan—but they set up the Confédération Africaine de Football and organized the first African Nations Cup in Khartoum. The top African players now
head for Europe. Association football is one of the few
paths to riches, social mobility, and status for young
African men, and over 300 of them are currently playing in Europe.
Asia now has half the world’s population and also
half the world’s registered association football players,
but it has struggled to gain a commensurate place
within the world game.
Association football is particularly popular in
Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Kampala. Calcutta
has the strongest league in India. South Korea has had
an eight-team professional league since 1983 and has
been a powerful force in the Asian Cup, played every
four years since 1956, and in the Asian Games. In
Japan, association football has always been a minority
sport, but it was encouraged by the Olympic Games of
1964 and by Japan’s bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico
City Games. Association football even has a long history in China. Although it has inevitably been affected
by the economic and ideological upheavals of the last
half century, by 1994 it had a national professional
In Australia, where association football has never
been the number one football sport in any state, it has
nevertheless grown in importance as a result of postwar immigration, particularly from Greece, Italy,
Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. For many native
Australians, however, these immigrant athletes gave
the sport a distinctly un-Australian image, especially
when crowd trouble reflected interethnic tensions.Association football is now the premier sport in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf States where oil-rich
conservative governments have promoted the game,
importing Europeans and South Americans to teach
and manage in modern stadiums, especially since the
Bibliography: Mason, Tony. (1980) Association Football and
English Society, 1863–1915. Brighton, UK: Harvester.
———. (1995) Passion of the People? Football in South
America. London: Verso. Murray, Bill. (1994) Football: A
History of the World Game. London: Scolar Press. Oliver,
Guy. (1992) The Guinness Record of World Soccer: The History of the Game in Over 150 Countries. London: Guinness
Publishing. Radnige, Keir. (1994) Ultimate Encyclopaedia
of Soccer. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Soccer, or association football, has many names: bollfoer in Finland, calcio in Italy, fussball in Austria, fútbol