Taher Mohamed
© Lorenz Richard / Red Bull Content Pool
Soccer (Football)

History of soccer

Let's trace the evolution of soccer from basic balls to rugby, to the most popular sport on the planet.
By Nai Boustany
6 min readPublished on
When the New York Red Bulls faced off against Austin FC in July 2022, few analysts expected the Bulls to upset Austin on their home turf. With several players still in their teens, like 17-year-old Serge Ngoma who scored the first goal of the match, the Red Bulls shocked the home team in a 4-3 victory. Red Bulls midfielder Dru Yearwood said, “No one has gone to Q2 [stadium] and pressed them like that. No one’s got in their faces the way we did. It’s that fearless mentality we’ve got.”
This young team, with an average age of 22 years, has excelled at what might be one of the oldest sports on Earth. Professional soccer has been around in England since the 1800s, but some say the game was created 2000 years ago by the Aztecs using a rubber ball. Others say a version of the game was played in China as far back as the 3rd century BC.
Red Bull Salzburg vs SK Rapid Wien

Red Bull Salzburg vs SK Rapid Wien

© GEPA pictures / Red Bull Content Pool

The fact is, we’ll never know when, or on what continent, soccer was invented. But we can trace its evolution from basic balls to rugby, to the most popular sport on the planet.

The History of Soccer

During the 12th century, what you could call the “bare bones” of soccer was being played in the meadows of England. This early version was called ‘Folkball,’ and while it barely resembles the modern sport, as it involved punching the ball with your fist and violently tackling the opposing team, it did focus on kicking. But the game was far too violent.
It wasn’t until the 1800s after the British government had banned it for centuries, that it was re-established as a winter sport with much safer rules. The game was played between English public schools like Eton, Winchester, and Charterhouse. The only problem was that each school had its own rules. Some allowed the limited carrying of the ball, like rugby, while others didn’t allow players to touch it.
The different rules made it hard for schools to compete. That is until 1848 when the Cambridge Rules were adopted. These rules were the first set of widely accepted soccer laws, but they still didn’t specify whether the ball could be handled.
So, in 1863 the first Football Association (FA) was formed in London to standardize all rules relating to soccer. That’s when soccer and rugby became two separate sports and touching the ball with your hands became illegal.

Early Professional Soccer

The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of soccer. In addition to schoolboys, factory workers took up the sport and created labor-centered teams. Soccer became a social athletic activity that would be played after work.
With the introduction of railroads, teams could now travel to one another and compete. This is how the earliest versions of soccer leagues were invented. It was during this time that teams started paying the best sportsmen to join their club and selling tickets to the star-player’s matches. These developments marked soccer’s transition from an amateur game to a professional sport.
While all this was going on, Sheffield became the home of the first amateur soccer club. Wanting to stay active in the winter months, Sheffield’s cricket team organized friendly soccer ‘kickabouts.’ Eventually, the members created an official soccer team, and that’s how the oldest club, Sheffield FC, was established in 1857. They invented their own set of rules, but after years of tension with rival clubs and associations, Sheffield conceded and started to abide by the FA’s rules.
Soccer was becoming increasingly popular all across England, with leading clubs beginning to play each other. Eventually, the English Football League was established in 1888. During this time, soccer also began to garner popularity in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. As of 1890, all four countries in the UK had their own domestic leagues and competed against each other.

International Play

Bebeto World Cup 1994

Bebeto World Cup 1994

© Mark Leech

For a long time, soccer was mainly a British sport, but gradually, the game spread to central Europe and beyond. In 1889, countries like Denmark and The Netherlands were the first outside of the UK to form their own football associations. They were swiftly followed by New Zealand in 1891, Argentina in 1893, and Belgium in 1895.
The international popularity of soccer led to the establishment of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA in 1904. This group provided rules for international matches and soccer associations so that teams from different countries could compete fairly. While the association was formed in France, other founding members included Belgium, Denmark, Spain, The Netherlands, and Sweden. Currently, the Fédération has 209 countries in its association and is known as one of the most important sporting organizations in the world.
In the early 1900s, the most important international soccer competition was the Olympic Football Tournament, part of the Summer Olympic Games. Men’s soccer has been played at almost every Summer Olympics since 1900; women's soccer took far longer to add to the program, debuting at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Now the most important international soccer competition is the FIFA World Cup, which started in 1930 and is held every four years. In terms of participation, the number of teams playing in the World Cup has increased from 13 nations in 1930 to 32 in 2022.

Asia, Africa and the MLS

Twenty-one teams entered FIFA in 1966, including teams from Asia and Africa. New associations were created to ensure inclusion and standardization internationally. Now the world regions have been divided into six confederations. These are the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA), The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), and Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL).
In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup, sparking the soccer craze in North America. At that time, U.S. Soccer also committed to developing a Division 1 professional soccer league - Major League Soccer. Now the MLS is a highly regarded soccer league and has been home to many international soccer stars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry.

Soccer Now

New York Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls

© Getty Im

Soccer is now one of the most watched sports in the world.
The MLS is also increasing in popularity, with an average of 2 million households tuning in for each match. There have been several developments that have helped to boost the League’s popularity, including the creation of soccer-specific stadiums and ‘the designated player rule’ (which allows soccer clubs to sign up to three players that would be outside of their salary caps to bring in more stars). These efforts are clearly paying off, as the MLS has become the 4th most popular sports league in the U.S., surpassing the National Hockey League.


Overall, soccer is steeped in history and tradition, with its roots stemming from ancient communities. While the sport has transformed throughout the ages, it continues to remain relevant in each era. Not only does it bring together people in packed stadiums like Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, it also makes for very entertaining TV!