As it is the true sport of the world, the history of soccer (football) is immense, complicated, and rather all-encompassing. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about soccer history, here are some good places to start.
(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning Groundhopper Guides may receive some compensation if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links.)
First, we have a whole blog post in which we attempt to describe the history and structure of the game, as well as that word “soccer.” Also check out our complete list of soccer-related reading and viewing suggestions, which we are constantly updating.
Big-Picture History of Soccer: Books
Let’s start with some books on world football history. A key name to know here is David Goldblatt, whose book The Ball is Round is quite simply the place to start for the global history of soccer.
And I do mean global; this book is immense, not only in its girth (just over 1,000 pages!) but also its breadth. It goes back to ancient times and ends in the mid-2000s; it was published in 2008. It hops around by time and region covering trends; important individuals, clubs and games; and will also bring you more up to date on the social and political implications of the game you might not know about.
Since that book ends about 15 years ago, Goldblatt went and wrote another 560 pages to bring it up to date with The Age of Football: Soccer and the 21st Century, published in 2020.
If your interest is mainly in English football, Goldblatt published Game of Our Lives: The English Premier Premier and the Making of Modern Britain in 2014.
Another really interesting take on world football history is How Soccer Explains the World, published in 2010. It’s a country-by-country analysis of the game combined with social, cultural and political histories, like the “new oligarchs” in Italy, corruption in Brazil, and the culture wars in the US. Highly recommended.
And while it’s not a book, The Football Pink has proved a treasure trove of English soccer history for me.
Big-Picture History of Football: Films and Videos
If video is more your thing, I’ve found some interesting things on world soccer history online, starting with this fun 15-minute video which is mainly focused on England but does a good job of hitting the soccer history highlights, with some proper English snark:
I also found a quite interesting “box set” of videos that seem to be a multi-part documentary on the history of the game. You can watch the whole nine-hour set on YouTube, but for our purposes here the most interesting parts are probably the chapters called Origins and Evolution of the European Game. The drawback to these videos is that at times they need (and don’t have) subtitles!
For me, two of the best soccer YouTube channels are COPA90 Football and their offshoot COPA90 Stories. I don’t love all their content, but in terms of soccer history they have several good series as playlists, including Club Documentaries. They also have two series of videos called Explainers and COPA90 Explains, each of which offers interesting sketches of football history and the current soccer scene. This is Football, which they have stopped updating, is a series of 12 club profiles.
Soccer History: Focusing on England
Since our focus (at the moment) at Groundhopper Guides remains on England, let’s talk more about English football history. The links above, of course, tell much of this history — and, as they love to inform everyone, they did invent the game. Still, there are countless stories to be told.
One way to approach this is via the history of clubs, and Colin Mitchell’s 2013 book The History of English Football Clubs covers 133 of them to have played in the leagues. Another is to check out fictional series like The English Game on Netflix (above), which chronicles the rise of professionalism in the game in the late 19th century.
Speaking of club history, this fun video tracks the number of trophies won by each club since the Football League was founded in 1888. I bet you didn’t know it was until the late 1970s that Aston Villa had the most trophies of any club in England!
Three Famous English Football Managers
Another way I like to approach English soccer history is through the histories of individuals like famous managers. So here are three famous managers whose stories you might not know, assuming you’re (A) not British and (B) fairly new to watching the Premier League.
The first is Sir Matt Busby, who built Manchester United into a power in the 1950s. The team was decimated by the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 but came back some 10 years later to become the first English club to lift the European Cup. Here is the trailer for a great documentary simply called Busby, which is available on Amazon.
Next up, in chronological order, is Bill Shankly, who had the same effect at Liverpool that Busby had at United: He took an ordinary club and made it into a world-conquering machine.
There are a few videos on YouTube about Shankly, but this one does the job in under 30 minutes. And by the way, if you’re ever in Liverpool to see a game at Anfield, stay in the Shankly Hotel downtown; it’s run by one of his grandchildren, and they have a tour available plus lots of his memorabilia on display in the lobby.
And finally, there’s Brian Clough, one of my favorite characters in English soccer. He was a star player at Middlesbrough and Sunderland, but injury cut his career short. He first rose to fame as a young manager when he won the league at Derby County, then went on to briefly (and very unsuccessfully) manage his great rivals Leeds United, before taking Nottingham Forest to the top of the European football world — all while becoming one of the most loved, hated, and generally memorable characters in the history of the game.
There’s a book about Clough’s Forest days called I Believe in Miracles, and there is also this documentary on YouTube:
Soccer History: The National Football Museum
Finally, the National Football Museum is well worth a visit next time you’re in Manchester. They have also launched a YouTube channel in which they have a good series they call First XI, in which they take 11 items in the museum and discuss that aspect of football history.
Some of these cover women’s football, the ball itself, and the history of football broadcasts. But since we at Groundhopper Guides particularly love football culture, here’s that “Starting XI” video for you to enjoy:
(I think they must still be working on their audio presentation.)