Martin Johnes. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 4, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Soccer—known as “football” in most of the world—is the world’s most popular sport. It involves two teams of eleven members trying to kick a ball into a goal, although it is often played in less organized ways. The modern sport was developed in England during the nineteenth century, evolving from older ball games that were played across the globe, with perhaps the oldest forms existing in China.


Modern soccer evolved from games played in England’s elite “public” education system. Here ball games, usually known as football, were used to discipline boys and to build their character both as individual leaders and as socially useful team players. Underpinning the values that football was thought to cultivate were ideas of masculinity and Christian conviction. The notion of “muscular Christianity” deemed that men should be chivalrous and champions of the weak but also physically strong and robust. The belief that such qualities would create the right sort of men to lead the British empire led to a cult of athleticism within English public schools. Football thus came to be a prominent feature of life for these schoolboys, as evoked in Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Schools developed their own rules for football, which made interschool matches and games in the universities problematic. Thus, people attempted to draw up common rules; this attempt culminated in the formation of the Football Association (FA) at a meeting at a London inn in 1863. The FA drew up a set of rules that was to become the basis of modern soccer. However, disagreements emerged at the meeting over the legitimacy of hacking (kicking an opponent in the shins) and the extent to which handling the ball should be allowed. These disagreements meant that the FA’s new rules did not find universal acceptance in all schools, and proponents of handling the ball and hacking, which were deemed more manly, formed the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Football was thus divided into soccer (alternatively known as “association football”) and rugby football. The term soccer evolved as public-school boys corrupted the word association into slang.

As boys left school, they wanted to continue playing and thus formed clubs with their friends, either at college or in the wider world. Because these young men went into positions of influence in industry, teaching, the military, the church, and professions such as the law or colonial service, they had not only the resources to form such clubs but also the social influence to get other people, including workers, involved. Many former public and grammar school students continued to be driven by the values of the cult of athleticism that they had learned at school. They thus saw moral benefits to teaching the masses to play. In this way soccer quickly spread both geographically and socially. In the English provinces many of the early promoters of organized soccer were from the lower middle classes and even the skilled workforce. Soccer probably was taken up by the lower classes with such speed because of surviving traditions of ball games. Thus, the organized version of soccer that emerged from the public schools was not a completely alien cultural phenomenon to the lower classes.

Integral to the sport’s development during the late nineteenth century was the development of cup competitions. The first such competition was the FA Cup, founded in 1871 and still the oldest soccer competition in the world. It involved teams being randomly paired in rounds, with each winner progressing to the next round. This progression continued until just two teams were left to meet in the “cup final.” The FA Cup added some purpose and excitement to the emerging sport of soccer. At a time of growing urbanization, it drew on and fed rivalries between towns and was instrumental in turning soccer into something that people watched rather than just played. Cup competitions were also an opportunity for gambling and attracted upbeat newspaper coverage. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as most of the English counties, soon followed the example of the FA Cup and established their own competitions, thus further cementing the sport’s popularity across Britain. Underpinned by the popularity of cup soccer, soccer emerged during the 1880s and 1890s as something resembling the modern sport, although the rules were subject to constant refinement. In the industrial north of England the growing crowds began to be charged for the privilege of watching and were hosted in purpose-built grounds. The first men to be paid to play were industrial workers who were offered jobs in return for playing for a club that sought to raise its reputation in the burgeoning sport. Other players were offered specific fees for matches. The response to such practices, particularly among the middle classes of the south of England, was not always favorable. Many people felt that playing for money undermined the sporting and manly characteristics of soccer. Such tensions were fed as the FA Cup showed that the northern professionalized teams were more effective and successful. Arguments over professionalism were thus tinged with class and regional prejudices and were essentially about the meaning and future of the sport. After northern teams threatened to break away and form their own association, the southern-dominated FA reluctantly legalized professionalism in 1885 in order to retain control of the sport.

With clubs now committed to paying players and charging spectators, they sought new ways to raise their income. In 1888 the Football League was founded with twelve teams from the Midlands and northern England who played each other on a home and away basis. This arrangement ensured regular competitive soccer beyond the world of cup competitions and did much to raise the profile and popularity of soccer. Like the FA Cup, the Football League was also to become a model for national soccer competitions in every country of the world.

By the end of the 1890s the leading Football League clubs could attract crowds of more than twenty thousand. Like the professional teams they watched and cheered, working-class men dominated these crowds, although small numbers of middle-class men and women supporters attended, too. Soccer thus came to be regarded as a “people’s game,” but the reality was more complex. The cost of attending matches put soccer beyond the reach of much of the unskilled and semiskilled workforce. The clubs and competitions were governed and administered by the middle classes, who kept a tight control over the contractual freedom and pay of their players. Thus, although soccer gave many working men much pleasure, the sport remained within the confines of wider material and political conditions.

Beyond Britain

The foundations of modern soccer were firmly established in Britain by the end of the nineteenth century. While its popularity and gradual acceptance as part of national culture continued in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century, the sport also began to spread beyond British shores. There the role of British trade and the British Empire was key. Britain was the globe’s most powerful economic and political force during the nineteenth century. British men thus traveled the world and took their favorite sports with them, setting up clubs and teaching others to play. Similarly, many people from elsewhere in Europe came to learn or work in Britain, discovered soccer, and took the sport home with them. This popularity was not rooted just in the simplicity and excitement of soccer; it also owed something to the fashionability and prestige that British culture enjoyed overseas. As soccer established itself in urbanized western and northern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, its new continental proponents began to play a role in its diffusion. The famous team FC Barcelona, for example, was set up in 1899 by a mixture of Swiss, German, and British young men who had learned soccer at college.

The spread of soccer across the rest of Europe was, of course, uneven, even within individual nations. In France, a country that pioneered the international administration of the sport, not until after World War I did soccer establish itself fully in the south of the country. In Germany and France soccer was often viewed as foreign and inferior to gymnastics. Some people saw the spread of soccer as a threat to established national, regional, and local traditions of play. In Bavaria soccer was actually banned until 1913. However, during the interwar years soccer became firmly established as the leading spectator sport across most of industrial Europe. The use of soccer as a means of entertaining troops during World War I was one important cause of soccer’s success. The development of international matches was another. The first international match took place between England and Scotland in 1872, but between the two world wars such matches became quite common on the continent and were used as a source of national pride and prestige, most obviously in the fascist dictatorships of Italy and Germany. As soccer’s popularity was cemented during the 1920s in continental Europe, the sport also became professionalized there. Again, this professionalization was neither universal nor even. West German soccer did not become professional on a full-time basis until 1963.

South America was the first continent beyond Europe where soccer took a grip. Again, the influence of the British was key. British emigres, brought to Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay by trade opportunities and links, set up teams, sometimes inviting the local population to play with them, sometimes seeing their efforts imitated by local elites. Other clubs owed their origins to members of the South American social elite who were educated in Europe. Traces of the British influence are still visible today, with some leading clubs, such as River Plate and Boca Juniors, having English names. Not until 1903 were the sport’s rules translated into Spanish and the Argentine Football Association began holding meetings in Spanish. As the sport shifted from its British origins, it became less socially exclusive, spreading to the urban masses and becoming an integral part of their popular culture. In 1916 a South American soccer association (CONMEBOL) was formed and the first South American championship, now known as the “Copa America,” competed for.

Soccer also spread to other continents, but it did not attain the huge popularity that it achieved in Europe and South America. A short-lived professional league was formed in the United States in 1894, but its popularity was patchy and largely rooted in urban European immigrant communities. The sport’s diffusion in colonial Asia and Africa was hindered by local political and ethnic tensions, whereas in Australasia and North America soccer was overshadowed by already developed local versions of football.

Television Era

In the post-1945 world the mass media drove soccer to new heights of popularity across the globe. Newspaper and magazine coverage continued to foster an interest in the sport, while radio coverage allowed those fans unable to attend matches to share in its excitement. Television took this immediacy even further, particularly from the mid-1960s when technical developments in close-ups and replays meant that watching a match on television allowed a spectator to both see more of the action and not suffer the discomfort of being in a stadium that often was cold, dated, and uncomfortable. A realization of this fact made soccer’s authorities often distrustful of television’s interest in broadcasting matches. They feared that attendances would fall as people stayed home to watch rather than pay to attend a match. Such fears underestimated the appeal of the atmosphere and communal experience of a live match. The potential that television held for boosting rather than undermining the general popularity of soccer became apparent with the success of broadcasts of the World Cup and, to a lesser extent, European club competitions. Technical developments during the 1960s and 1970s allowed such matches to be watched live across the globe, turning the global sport into a shared global experience.

Television also extended the potential for the commercial exploitation of soccer. Since the advent of professionalism, soccer had been run on business lines in capitalist countries, but rarely was profit a key motive for club owners. Instead, most financial surpluses tended to be used to improve the team or its ground. With television the potential for sponsorship and advertising increased significantly. Most obviously, during the 1980s sponsors’ names began to appear on team shirts, and competitions were renamed after sponsors. The large audiences that televised soccer attracted appealed to advertisers, pushing up the fees that broadcasters were willing to pay for the rights to matches. During the 1990s these broadcasting fees spiraled as the decline of hooliganism improved soccer’s image and as its owners and administrators developed more commercial mind-sets. Instead of using this increased income to secure their financial futures, clubs splurged the income on players’ wages, turning the sport’s stars into multimillionaires. Across the globe, apart from the most popular clubs such as Real Madrid or Manchester United, soccer’s financial base remains unstable. Accompanying such developments has been an increasingly fluid and globalized labor market for players. Leading clubs across the developed world hire the best players they can attract, regardless of their origin, turning their teams into multilingual symbols of globalization. Such cosmopolitan teams have furthered the trend that television began, as fans often support teams from places with which they have no personal connection.

Although the fame and fortunes of players have risen, the social structure of supporters has remained more static. Soccer remains a sport of the masses across the globe, although it has also always drawn significant support from the middle class. In Europe during the 1990s clubs sought to pay for players’ wages and the modernization of their stadiums by increasing ticket prices. This practice priced live soccer beyond the means of some of its supporters, but the reach of the mass media meant that the sport’s emotional pull remains strong for such fans. Indeed, with increased television coverage, the age and gender boundaries of soccer fans perhaps expanded. An estimated 1.3 billion people watched the 1998 World Cup final on television. The level of commitment to soccer amongst members of this vast audience obviously varied significantly. However, for many people across the globe, soccer remains an integral part of life, a sport that, via the loyalty felt toward individual clubs, adds structure and meaning to life.

Such loyalty has not always been for the good. Racism, crowd disorder, and violence have been a problem throughout soccer’s history. Before the 1960s soccer hooliganism was associated with continental Europe, but then people began to view it as the “English disease.” Hooliganism’s form varied across different cultures and periods, but it usually was characterized by fighting between opposing fans. Although occasionally resulting in deaths, hooliganism was more typically based on show and scuffles than serious violence. In 1980s Europe many hooligan groups developed fashionable dress codes and became clearly identifiable subcultures of their own. Sociologists have debated soccer hooliganism’s causes, with explanations varying from economically and politically oppressed young men venting their frustrations to people simply enjoying fighting. In Europe the growth of all-seater stadiums and close-circuit television has led to a decline in the overt hooliganism of previous decades, although it continues to take place on a reduced scale away from soccer grounds and at some international tournaments.

For many men soccer has been a key part of their masculinity, something they were socialized into at young age, a sport that allowed them to gain the respect of their peers and display their emotions and a sense of communal identity in an uninhibited fashion. Yet, for all its association with maleness, soccer is also played and watched by women. The earliest women’s matches were played in England during the 1890s, but women players struggled against the characterization of soccer as something inherently manly. The disruption of social norms during World War I led to a temporary upsurge in women’s soccer in parts of western Europe, but not until the wider movement for the social liberation of women during the 1960s and 1970s did women’s soccer gradually, and often grudgingly, begin to win acceptance from soccer’s male authorities and supporters. Although a women’s World Cup began in 1991 and was included in the Olympics from 1996, across most of the world women’s soccer continues to struggle to escape the shadow of the men’s sport.

North America is the one part of the globe where soccer has not dominated spectator sports. In North America soccer has struggled against the popularity of baseball, U.S. football, and basketball, all of which claim to be more authentically American. However, the fortunes of soccer in the United States seemed to increase during the late 1970s. Some clubs in the North American Soccer League (NASL), most notably the New York Cosmos, brought in great foreign talents such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer and attracted crowds comparable with those of the largest European clubs. However, the NASL failed to become financially sustainable and closed in 1985. The desire of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s world governing body, to break into the North American market led it to hold the 1994 World Cup in the United States—a decision treated with some skepticism around the rest of the globe.The tournament was a success and led to the reintroduction of a national professional league in the United States but it did not lead to a major breakthrough in soccer’s overall popularity there. However, soccer’s North American profile (together with women’s soccer in general) was boosted in 1999 when the United States hosted and won the Women’s World Cup, with 40 million people watching the final in the United States alone. Today soccer remains overshadowed in U.S. culture by other sports, but its popularity as a participatory sport continues to grow steadily, especially among girls and middle-class children.

Nature of the Sport

Soccer can be reduced to two teams trying to place the ball into a recognizable goal and outfield players being prohibited from touching the ball or wrestling or hacking each other. The field of play, numbers of players, and duration of a match can all be changed without destroying the sport’s essence. Furthermore, the basic skills of kicking and controlling the ball are not difficult to master. This simplicity and adaptability have underpinned the sport’s popularity and diffusion, allowing it to be played everywhere from the beach to the street.

Even in its organized form, soccer has only seventeen rules. These rules have been subject to ongoing refinement, and their simplicity belies the intricacy of the skills, tactics, and ebb and flow of the sport. The adult-organized form requires eleven players on a team, with one player nominated as goalkeeper and able to handle the ball in the defined penalty area. It is played on a marked grass pitch (playing field) that is a maximum of 110 meters long and 69-91 meters wide, with goals 7.3 meters wide and 2.5 meters high and constructed of metal posts with nets. Matches last for ninety minutes, with the winner being the team who scores the most goals, although ties are permissible in league competitions. The settling of tied matches in tournaments and cup competitions has been a controversial issue. Replays, extra time, and penalty shootouts all are used. Yet, ties remain a normal part of soccer and separate it from many other sports.

Of course, the tactics of soccer have evolved during its history. During its public school infancy soccer was based around each player dribbling the ball toward the goal and then shooting or seeking to regain possession if tackled. As soccer took off with the British working class, it evolved into a more fluid passing game with the emphasis on team play. This led to a clear demarcation of different roles for players within teams and the gradual establishment of essentially attacking and defending roles. During the interwar years defensive positions began to take on more importance in tactics, despite a change in the offside rules in 1925 intended to create a more attacking game that would be more attractive to paying spectators. Stopping goals increasingly became easier than scoring them, putting creative players—those who were routinely able to pass the ball to a teammate in a goal-scoring position or dribble past defenders with a mixture of skill and speed—at a premium. Yet, not until the 1960s did teams begin to assign more players to primarily defensive duties than to attacking ones. Defensive play and the tight marking of opponents became particularly common in Italian soccer. A brief and entertaining departure from the emphasis on not conceding goals came from the Dutch national teams of the 1970s. Playing a system christened “total football,” all players were supposed to be able to both attack and defend, thus breaking down the rigidity of positional play. Today the 4-4-2 system (four defenders, four midfielders, and two attackers) dominates the professional sport across the globe.

The nature of soccer fandom, like the sport itself, is based around oppositions: To support a team is also to have a rival. This dyadic role explains why soccer is such a powerful source of both individual and collective identities. Across the globe some of the strongest team rivalries are infused by wider ethnic, economic, religious, or political tensions. Fandom can take on religion-like qualities for many supporters, most of whom have an unrivaled passion for a single team. A team’s ground holds a deep emotional significance, players are worshipped (both as individuals and as team members), and rituals surround the match-day experience. The rituals of match day vary across cultures, but demonstrative show is central, with fans wearing team colors and singing or chanting to declare their support.

Competition at the Top

Soccer’s most important competition is the World Cup, staged every four years and comparable to—maybe superior to—the Olympics in prestige. The first World Cup tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930 and was won by the host country, competing against just twelve other countries. The World Cup’s popularity grew quickly, and a qualifying competition was used for the next tournament in Italy in 1934. The extensive global television coverage that the tournament received from 1970 onward made it worthy of its title. By 1982 the final tournament was expanded to twenty-four teams, and, although still dominated by Europe, the allocation of places became somewhat more representative of the global spread of the sport’s popularity. The final tournament was expanded to thirty-two teams in France in 1998, when its sixty-four matches were watched by 2.7 million in the stadiums and a total of 37 billion people on television. For participating nations the competition often creates a temporary but strong sense of unity that cuts across class and regional divisions as people join to support their nation’s team.

Brazil has been the outstanding nation in the tournament’s history, winning the cup five times. International competitions are also held by every continental soccer confederation, although none matches the prestige or popularity of the World Cup. In Asia, and particularly Africa, these competitions are rooted in the spirit of the postcolonial era, as soccer began to flourish and to be used by newly independent countries as a symbol of national pride and of a wider sense of unity among such countries. In 2002 the World Cup was jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan—the first time it had been held outside Europe and the Americas. The 2010 World Cup will be held in South Africa—the first time either it or the Olympics have been held on that continent.

Soccer was introduced to the Olympics in 1900. Olympic soccer enjoyed some prestige during the 1920s but was quickly superseded by the World Cup and suffered from the problem that the best players were increasingly professionals. Even after the Olympics were professionalized, FIFA has remained largely unsupportive of the Olympic game, fearing a rival for its World Cup. Since 1992 Olympics soccer has taken the form of an under-twenty-three competition.

In club soccer the European Cup, now known as the “Champions League,” is the most prestigious event. It was begun in 1955 as a competition for winners of the various European leagues. European club games, played on midweek evenings and made possible by the growth of air travel and the development of floodlights, created a meaningful European soccer community. The lure of television money led to the competition expanding during the early 1990s, changing from a knockout competition to a mini-league format in its early rounds. The most successful European countries (where the television market was also the greatest) were awarded extra places, and England, Italy, and Spain now provide four teams each to the competition. The monetary rewards of qualifying for the Champions League have become so great that for most clubs it now takes precedence over domestic trophies.

Like the history of all sports, soccer’s history is filled with stars who have excited crowds. The most famous player in history is Pelé (b. 1940). Raised in Brazilian slums, he embodied that country’s obsession with artistic soccer but he was also subjected to attempts by Brazil’s dictatorship to exploit his status to promote its own standing. Other stars who have influenced how people thought and played the sport include Stanley Matthews (1915-2000, England), Franz Beckenbauer (b. 1945, Germany), and Johan Cruyff (b. 1947, Netherlands).

Governing Body

Soccer is governed by FIFA, formed in 1904 by a group of European nations. Its initial membership of 7 had reached 73 by 1950 and 204 by 2004. FIFA is responsible for organizing the World Cup, but responsibility for the rules of soccer lies with the International Football Association Board, consisting of four voting representatives from FIFA and one each from the soccer associations of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, a legacy of the early respect for Britain’s pioneering role. FIFA’s governance has not been uncontroversial. In particular, it has faced tensions over the relative power and influence of the different continental associations. The Union des Associations Européennes de Football has remained particularly influential, mostly because of the greater television money available in Europe. At the 2006 World Cup fourteen of the thirty-two places will be awarded to European teams. In contrast, Africa—which, like Europe, entered fifty-two teams into the qualifying competition—will receive only five places.

Soccer is organized into continental confederations: the Asian Football Confederation (formed 1954), Confédération Africaine de Football (formed 1957), Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (formed 1961), Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (formed 1916), Oceania Football Confederation (formed 1966), and Union des Associations Européennes de Football (formed 1954). FIFA has more members than the United Nations—a clear indication of the popularity of soccer.