Despite its incredible popularity, few people know the complex history of football and its deep roots in England.
Whether you call it football, futebol, or soccer, one thing is certain: It’s the most popular sport in the world. But, who invented football? Where does the sport come from?
Football has won the hearts of millions of people for centuries. The sport has taken place both indoor and outdoor, just as much as it has on the virtual plane.
According to FIFA, over 240 million people from over 200 different countries play the sport, turning this simple game into a global phenomenon. 2
Despite its incredible popularity, few people know the complex history of football and its deep roots in England.
In this article, we’ll uncover who invented football and answer a few common questions about the history and origins of this beautiful game.
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Where did football originate? (Early football history)
“Where does football originate from?” you may be wondering. It may come as no surprise that football has a complex and ancient history, so the answers to questions like “Where was football created?” and “What country invented football?” are not so straightforward.
Before modern football took off in the 19th century, earlier versions of a game involving kicking a ball were played for thousands of years prior. To get a better understanding of the origin of football, we can split up its history into two main periods: ancient and modern.
There were several similar ball games that were played throughout history that are considered to be early forms of football, some of which can be dated back to the third century BC.
When was football invented?
One of the earliest forms of the game was played during the Han Dynasty in China. This game called ‘tsu’ chu,’ or ‘cuju,’ involved players kicking a ball into a net. This ball game was played for fun, competition, entertainment for the royal courts, and also used as a method of training for the military troops. Even the emperor of the Han Dynasty enjoyed the sport. And, similar to football as we know it now, participants had to kick the ball with their feet to score and could not touch the ball with their hands. 3
Another team game that was invented over 3,000 years ago was Tchatali. This ancient game was invented by the Aztecs and was sometimes played during ritual occasions. When games were played as part of a ritual, the ball would represent the sun. Tensions were high during these games since the captain of the losing team would be killed as a sacrifice to the gods at the end of the match.
As you may have guessed, roughhousing and violence have been common themes throughout the history of many ball games, especially in earlier versions of football.
Who created football?
The Ancient Greeks created many things still with us today (especially when it comes to Olympic sport), but did they create football? The Ancient Greeks played a game called ‘episkyros’ which was very similar to modern football, except that the rules allowed players to play with their hands. As a result, episkyros was often played violently. It was also considered a low-class game and was never included in the Panhellenic Games.
Eventually, it was ‘harpastum,’ a violent ball game adapted from episkyros that was played in ancient Rome which would influence the beginning of football in Britannica.
Harpastum was a game also involving two teams, but the objective of the game was to keep the ball on a single team’s side for as long as possible while passing and kicking it back and forth to one another. To take the ball, it was common for players to resort to violence.
While the roots of association football can be traced back to the ancient Roman game, it’s unclear how much the British took from harpastum to create their own version of the sport, and eventually, modern football as we know it. 4
Which country invented football? (Origins of football in England)
While it’s unknown exactly which country invented football first, we are sure that at least one form of the game began in England around the 9th century. At this point, the game was far different from football as we know it today. This game involved kicking a pig’s bladder around villages throughout England.
Then, during the Medieval period, the history of football was forever changed—the British began playing Folk football, or “folk ball.” This game involved kicking, carrying, and throwing a ball into a goal as a way to score points.
Folk ball wasn’t played on a field like association football is today. Football games were played in grassy meadows and roads since there were still no fields dedicated to the sport. This meant that goals were placed miles apart from each other, and as a result, many people were able to play the game at a single time. The game became very popular and spread beyond the borders of England, all the way to France.
It may come as no surprise that Folk football was a relatively violent game with minimal rules. Players were allowed to kick each other’s shins—otherwise called “shinning”—regardless of whether or not they were close to the ball. Matches would become so unruly that often players and spectators would damage parts of the city and injure or kill players and participants. Eventually, the British were banned from playing football in the early 14th century (1314) by the Lord Mayor of London due to its ‘chaos’. And, if anyone was caught playing a football match, they would be imprisoned.
The Return of Football in the 19th Century
In the early 19th century, modern football was played in London, but several changes were made since the Medieval version of the sport.
Football re emerged and became popular once again thanks to the public schools in areas like Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, and Eton, and the game was played during the winter between residential houses.
During this time, there was no clear difference between rugby and football; each school had its own set of rule codes. While some schools, such as Rugby, allowed handling the ball, other schools, such as Eton, limited contact with the ball to the feet. At Eton, the game was known as “the dribbling game” whereas at Rugby, the game was known as “the running game.”6
Other details of the game including the size of the ball, the number of players allowed on each team, and the time limit of the match were all points of contention.
Because of the differences in rule codes, teams from different public schools found it difficult to play with one another. Once students moved on to university, they were restricted to playing the sport with former schoolmates because they shared common rules.
To standardize the rules across most public schools, the University of Cambridge came up with the ‘Cambridge Rules’ during the mid 19th century (1843).
Eventually, graduates of Cambridge who went on to form their own football clubs would carry on this set of rules throughout the country.
Finally, in 1863, after several meetings between teams in and around London, a set of rules was formed.
Who Invented Football? (The formation of the Football Association)
While there isn’t a single individual who we can pinpoint throughout the history of football as the person who invented football, there is Ebenezer Cobb Morley, who is considered the ‘father’ of the first set of rules created.
In 1862, Morley created the Barnes Football Club in London, England. Despite the development of the Cambridge Rules earlier in the 19th century, not everyone accepted them and there was no one to enforce them, so clubs throughout England still played by their own rules.
Morley was fed up with compromising and negotiating the rules with the opposing team before the game, so he decided to draft a set of rules that could be used by one governing body to manage the football clubs throughout England.
He sent his proposition to Bell’s Life newspaper, which led to a meeting with several football clubs in and around London. This meeting led to the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 and the first-ever set of rules that would prohibit handling the ball.
And, as a result of these meetings, Morley became the Football Association’s first secretary and eventually its second president. Morley eventually wrote the official Laws of the Game, which now are the basis to the current FIFA rules that are used to this day in football clubs throughout the world.
Scotland & football (Origin story from Scotland)
Where was football invented? There is a huge debate between the people of Scotland and England about who invented the game that’s played today throughout the world.
Many people in Scotland believe that it was the Scottish who invented the football we play to this day. This is because the Scottish played a similar sport for over 500 years in the north of Scotland which involved passing a ball with their feet and running with the ball at the same.
Eventually, this game was brought to Glasgow by men from Perthshire and the Highlands who would play in Queen’s Park and form the Queen’s Park Football Club. These men adapted the game by adopting the Football Association’s rules but changed them slightly to allow passing and dribbling. Passing, kicking, and dribbling the ball between players would be essential if they wanted to win the game, especially if they were to play against English teams who often used brute force to take hold of the ball. 5
Although the act of passing the ball with a player’s feet was considered a new element of the game, it’s still up for debate whether the people of Scotland were the ones who created football.
The impact of industry on association football history
Football grew significantly during the mid-1800s, which can be attributed to the rapid expansion of urbanization and industrialization throughout Britain.
The rise of industrialization meant that the working class were spending more hours of their day at work and had fewer hours to dedicate to playing sport. On the other hand, this also meant that workers were looking for more interesting ways to spend their leisure time, especially amongst other people. As a result, on their days—or afternoons—off, industrial workers would play or watch football. Even organizations like churches, schools, and trade unions created football teams that could be joined by men in the working class.
Urbanization impacted the amount of space that the working class had to play football, due to new railroads, roads, and larger industries taking up valuable real estate. However, it also meant that people had access to more methods of transportations, such as trains and trams, which made it easier to meet larger groups of people at churches, pubs, and factories and form football teams. Expanded transportation also meant that they could travel further to watch and play football games.
Additionally, the adult literacy rate also started to rise, which meant that more people were able to read coverage of football in the press and information about the sport started to spread quickly. 7
The rise of professionalism in the beautiful game
As more people started to learn about English football and had access to transportation, the average number of spectators at matches began to increase. It also meant that people were spending less time watching other sports, cricket being one of them.
Around the 1870s, certain clubs, Lancashire being one of the first, monetized games by charging spectators an admission fee.
What would clubs do with the money earned from their admission fees? They did the only thing that would give them more viewership: Pay the best players for a more exciting game. Clubs began to ignore the Football Association’s amateurism rule and would pay illegal wages to the best players on the team.
Not only did this attract more working-class people to the sport, but it also encouraged them to improve their football skills. Notably, some of the most skilled players came from Scotland.
The Football Association finally stepped up in 1884 and expelled two clubs for paying their players and going against the Football Association’s amateurism rule. Although, by that time, paying players wages was such a common practice that the Football Association decided to allow professionalism to continue.
As teams began to earn more money and viewership continued to rapidly increase, the amateur sport quickly turned into a business for profit. Clubs became companies and were able to buy land to build stadiums. A few years later, the Football League was formed and the sport grew exponentially. 5, 8
The first football competitions
In 1871, eight years after the Football Association was formed, the first football tournament, the FA Cup, was played. The FA Cup is now considered the oldest football competition in the world. By the time the FA Cup was established, the 50 soccer clubs were members of the Football Association.
Just before the FA Cup took place, England hosted the first international football match between a club from Scotland and a club from England. This international game was so popular that its attendance could be compared to that of a FIFA game today.
The first international game that was played outside of Europe was in Argentina during the mid 19th century, however, the players were British workers, not Argentineans.
The globalization of football
While football’s origins began in England, the sport quickly spread throughout the world, beginning in Denmark and the Netherlands in 1889. Eventually, during the late 1800s, football clubs were formed throughout countries like Argentina, Chile, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy. By 1904, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, was founded in Paris, France by representatives from some of the larger clubs in Europe.
England, Scotland, and Wales were wary to leave the English Football Association but eventually joined FIFA in 1911. Then, due to conflicts during World War I, they left FIFA in 1920 but rejoined in 1924.
Modern football (FIFA World Cup)
Two of the largest and most anticipated sporting events to this day are the Summer Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. The FIFA World Cup was first played in 1930 in Uruguay and since then has been played each fourth year.
While the FIFA World Cup has always been exclusively limited to men’s teams, China held the first World Cup for women in 1991.
Throughout the years, the number of nations competing in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers has increased significantly. In 1934, 32 teams competed for the World Cup qualifiers and as of 2014, 211 nations competed in the qualifiers.
The World Cup has become historic in its ability to unite nations, ease political conflicts, and bring people together to support a common goal.
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