A Brief History of Football – and “Soccer”

Paul Gerald · Profile
A Brief History of Football – and “Soccer”

What is the history of the game of football? And where does the word “soccer” come from? Read on to find out.

As an American, I catch some crap – or I should say, “get some stick” – from English people about the word “soccer.” Here, I will arm you for self defense, and also cover a very brief history of the game in England and around the world.

The Old Days

Parkers Piece in Cambridge, (a) birthplace of Association Football.

Take yourself back to, say, 1850 in England. All over the country, people are kicking around a ball or a pig’s bladder or something else round, and calling this activity “football.” Some form of this had been going on for centuries, but it became focused at this point, in clubs and at schools.

Since nobody was in charge, there were no agreed-upon rules. Each set of rules, or code, had slight variations in number of players, length of game, way to score, and so on. They were generally sorted into two camps. In one, using hands was not allowed, nor was “hacking” one another to the ground. The most common of these were known, for their geographical origin, as the Cambridge Rules and the Sheffield Rules. In another version, you could hold the ball and hack each other down; these came from a school called Rugby.

Finally it was decided that having proper competitions required a common set of rules, so the Football Association was formed in London in 1863. This took a while, and a series of votes – I should also point out this happened in a tavern – but the “no hands, no hacking” crowd won, and the Laws of the Game were written. But the “hands and hacking” crowd wanted to play their way, so in 1871 they formed the Rugby Union.

From this point forward, there were two official versions of the game: Rugby Football and Association Football. Soon enough, nicknames emerged to simplify things: rugger and soccer. So soccer comes from “association” and was invented by English people. Remember that, my fellow Americans.

The Damn Word “Soccer”

Manchester newspaper announcing the 1958 Munich air disaster.

So, why do Americans call it soccer? Because as both Rugby and Association Football were spread around the world by British soldiers and sailors, different parts of the world liked different versions. For whatever reason, rugby football took hold in the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, while association football pretty much took over the rest of the world. This is where two parallel stories diverge.

In the US, rugby football was so much more popular that it just became “football.” And then it occurred to us that it would be more fun to throw the ball forwards, and safer to wear helmets, and after a century or so we got the New England Patriots. That game’s nickname was gridiron, and for a while in the early 20th century you would still see that word in publications here and there.

Meanwhile, in England, people actually used the word “soccer” a fair amount until about 1980, but by that time, association football had become so much more popular than rugby football that they simply reverted to “football” and “rugby.”

Also in the 1970s, we Americans “discovered” this thing called association football, and decided it was cool. We formed a professional league and started paying attention to the World Cup. But since by this time our “football” had long since been the king of our sporting world, we had to call this “new” game something else. Obviously, we settled on its old English nickname, soccer.

Timbers Army, supporters of Portland in the MLS.

As you will discover, this utterly infuriates many English people. They don’t seem to care that the Aussies, Kiwis, Canucks and Irish call it soccer, as well. There is something about the combination of this game, that word, and us that sets them off. And for a while, it really annoyed them that we were getting to be better at it then they were; we were getting out of our groups in the World Cup while they weren’t, and our record against them in World Cups was one win and one draw. But ever since Trinidad and Tobago, we don’t get to use that stick against them anymore.

Try to have some sympathy for them, though: imagine that Great Britain started a basketball league called the Hoops League or a football league called the Gridiron Association. We would give them crap about that, right?

In my book, I switch all the time between soccer and football, as well as between England, Great Britain and the UK. I really don’t care what we call any of it.

America and England; we just have to live with each other.

Spreading Around the Country

A Replica of the FA Cup

As the game spread around the world, local competitions started to form. We’ll stick with England, but assume that the following happened in every country, everywhere.

First, local sets of clubs and schools formed little leagues and associations. Then a national league was formed; in England this was the Football League in 1888, with 12 original members who all still exist today: Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers, Accrington, Everton, Preston North End, Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Note that all of those are from Birmingham or farther north; football began as a Northern Thing.

The leagues multiplied and formed layers, connected by promotion and relegation – but in the old days that was based on being voted into different leagues. Now it’s about winning and losing; more on that in the next chapter.

Meanwhile, the Football Association decided to have a national competition, so in 1871 they formed the FA Cup. Again, this happens all over the world and is referred to as a domestic cup competition. Every country has at least one; in the States it’s called the US Open Cup. Our top domestic league, of course, is Major League Soccer.

Today there are nine levels of leagues in England and more than 700 clubs that participate in the FA Cup.

The Worldwide Game

A World Cup Qualifier between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium

At some point, countries decided to get their best players together and have a game. And, of course, you need a worldwide governing body to run all of this. Enter the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, an international crime syndicate which poses as soccer’s world governing body.

FIFA, which runs the World Cup, is divided into several regions, which you can think of as crime-family turfs: UEFA in Europe, CONCACAF in North America, CONMEBOL in South America, and so on. (Let’s just skip what those stand for, shall we?) Within each of these regions, there are three types of competitions:

  • A qualifying tournament for the World Cup
  • A country-versus-country competition held every few years
  • A club championship held every year.

In Europe, these are known as World Cup Qualifying, which takes almost two years to work out; the European Championships, or Euros, next to be held in 2024; and the UEFA Champions League. In America’s region, we call these World Cup Qualifying; The Gold Cup; and the CONCACAF Champions League, which has been won by an American club only three times in its 50-year history.

Learn more about all the leagues and cups of English soccer,


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Written By Paul Gerald
Paul Gerald, Owner and Founder of Groundhopper Soccer Guides · Profile
Paul is a traveler, writer, publisher and soccer freak. He started Groundhopper Soccer Guides as EnglishSoccerGuide.com in 2014. When he's not kicking around England working on this site and his book, you can find him at Providence Park in Portland, cheering on the Portland Timbers.

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