How Soccer Has Become The Popular International Sport It is Today

Call it soccer or Association football (or “the beautiful game” according to Google, apparently). There’s no denying that a sport that involves kicking the ball to score is exhilarating enough to fill stadiums in almost every game. The FIFA World Cup alone attracts fans by the millions, with the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. recording the highest total and average attendance to date.

Then again, people don’t have to wait for a big tournament to enjoy soccer. Around the world, friends play the sport with just an open field with a few makeshift goals and the ball. It isn’t unusual for people who play soccer as a pastime to end up playing for a professional team before jampacked stadiums. That’s the influence soccer has on today’s society.

But how did it get here? How has soccer created an all-encompassing culture, no less a lucrative market for merchandise and , among others? 

The Forerunners

Before anything, it’s worth noting that soccer isn’t a contemporary creation. Ancient civilizations have had their respective versions, though far cries from the soccer everyone knows today. 

One example is Tlachtli, played by the Aztec people some 5,000 years ago. This highly religious sport involved shooting the ball made of natural rubber (which was a luxury back then) in a hoop no wider than 30 cm, as opposed to modern goals that are three meters wide. There was no time limit; the first to score wins—and, depending on the local culture, will be offered to their deities.

A less grim example is Cuju (literally meaning “kick ball”), played as early as the Han dynasty in China. It was one of the earliest forms of standardized soccer, albeit the upper class and military personnel primarily played it. It soon spread across Asia and inspired other versions, with the Japanese developing its own variant known as kemari six centuries later.

Football Fisticuffs

Cultures worldwide continued refining their versions of soccer over the next several centuries. Such developments would come to a head in 12th century England, where soccer had earned a somewhat violent reputation.

William Fitzstephen, a cleric in service to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, made the earliest recorded description of modern soccer in 1170. He cited that many youths would go out and play the sport after dinner, attesting to the sport’s established popularity.

However, the lack of rules meant that anything goes in this kind of soccer. Apart from the goals separated by miles and each team being hundreds strong, fistfights often break out during or after a game, resulting in injuries and property damage. Such incidents, coupled with a lack of interest from the ruling class, prompted monarchs at the time to ban soccer.

But no ban would stop people from playing soccer, even if it meant having to pay a hefty fine or spend days behind bars. Kings would attempt to enforce these bans for centuries until the early 1800s when games finally imposed some semblance of order. By then, it was clear that people loved the sport, and suppressing it would be pointless.

Clubs And Cups

With soccer shaping up nicely, the next milestone was the introduction of football clubs and competitions. By the late 1800s, teams began organizing themselves into clubs such as Notts County (1862), Aston Villa (1874), Heart of Midlothian (1874), and Manchester City (1880). If some of these names sound familiar, that’s because they spent their existence getting stronger.

Whole regions also started developing their football prowess, with the match between England and Scotland in 1871 being an opportunity to put it to the test. Although neither side managed to score, the 4,000 attendees that day couldn’t help but marvel at their plays. The thrill of the game was unforgettable to them.

For the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries, soccer will find its place outside the British Isles. In 1904, several European countries formed the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), later bolstered by England and other nations. Four years later, the 1908 Olympics in London would host soccer as an official event for the first time.

In his soccer history book, The Ball Is Round, photographer David Goldblatt best sums up soccer’s overwhelming appeal: “It captures the brilliance of unpredictability, the uncertainty of the human heart and human skill, of improvisation and chance.”


There’s no need to explain the decades following soccer’s entry into the world stage. Its fame has become undeniable by that time, inspiring many to enjoy the game from the bleachers or walk down the professional path. As to whether it still has room to become even more famous, only time—and fans—can tell.

Written by Balachandran B

Co-founder & Head of Operations @ SoccerSouls Sports Network. Nick Name: Jin. Favorite Sports team: Arsenal
Follow me @Jin

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