How Was Football Invented? Back to the Roots of the Beautiful Game.

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Have you ever stopped to think about how football, the game we all adore, started?

Picture a world centuries ago, a time far before our modern stadiums and bright shirts, yet a familiar scene unfolds – a ball, a goal, and a game that captures hearts.

Football, beloved by billions around the globe, has roots that stretch way back in time, more ancient than we often realise.

But the story of football is not just a tale from the past; it’s a fascinating journey through history.

From ancient playgrounds to the green pitches we know today, football’s evolution is as intriguing as the game itself. So, let’s take a step back and trace the origins of football.

How did this global phenomenon begin, and what twists and turns did it take to become the sport we can’t live without? Let’s explore the past to understand the game we love today!

How Was Football Invented? The Ancient Origins of Football

Let’s kick off our journey through football’s past by traveling back to ancient civilizations, where the earliest seeds of the game were sown.

How was football invented - image showing the chinese game of Cuju

Kicking Off in Ancient China: The Game of Cuju

First stop: China, around the 2nd century B.C. Here, as Soccer Blade tells us, an ancient game called Cuju, or Tsu Chu in the Han Dynasty, was all the rage.

Picture this: two teams on a rectangular field, skillfully juggling and kicking a leather ball, aiming for a goal, but no hands allowed! It was more than just a game; the Chinese military even used Cuju for fitness training.

The love for this game ran deep in China for centuries, and believe it or not, there are still teams keeping this tradition alive today.

How was football invented - image showing the greek game of Episkyros

Teamwork in Ancient Greece: The Legacy of Episkyros

Next, we jet off to ancient Greece, where a game named Episkyros was the talk of the town.

According to Your Soccer Home, this wasn’t your typical kick-around. It involved a mix of handling and kicking the ball, with a strong emphasis on teamwork and defence.

Though more physical than the football we know, the strategy and cooperation in Episkyros played a significant role in shaping the football we play today.

How was football invented - image showing the roman game of harpastum

Ancient Rome’s Harpastum: Speed and Skill

Now, let’s zip over to ancient Rome, where the game ‘Harpastum’ took center stage. History of Soccer describes it as a fast, physical, and skilled game, echoing the Greek game Episkyros.

Played with a small ball on a rectangular field, Harpastum was all about getting the ball over the opponent’s line. The reach of the Roman Empire meant this game spread far and wide, leaving its mark on the evolution of football.

How was football invented - aztec game of pok a tok or Tlachtli or Mesoamerican ballgame

A Sacred Game in Central America: Pok a Tok and Tlachtli

Our final ancient stop takes us to Central America, where, as Imagining History explains, the Mayans played a game called Pok a Tok, and the Aztecs called it Tlachtli.

Unlike the others, this game wasn’t just for fun; it was steeped in religious significance.

Played on an I-shaped court, teams aimed to get the ball to the other end without using their hands – and keeping it in the air!

It’s hard to draw a direct line from this game to modern football, but it’s a compelling piece of the puzzle, showing that kickball games were played way before they were elsewhere.

Medieval and Early Modern Football

Next, we take a trip into the rough-and-tumble world of football during the medieval and early modern periods. It’s a story of conflict, bans, and the indomitable spirit of the game!

when was football invented - image showing Medieval football in scotland

Scotland’s Rough-and-Tumble Football Roots

Our journey begins in Scotland, a land where football wasn’t just a game, but a battleground.

According to a great article in The Scotsman, the first mention of football in Scotland dates back to 1424, when King James I outlawed the game, deeming it too disruptive. But, the Scots’ love for the game was unstoppable!

Football at this time was incredibly violent – a court case from 1601 records the unfortunate demise of two brothers over a game-related disagreement! Yikes!

Adding to its historical significance, the oldest existing football, found in the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle and dating around 1540, is a testament to Scotland’s deep-rooted football history.

when was football invented - image of Folk football in Medieval England

Royal Disapproval of Football in England

Crossing over to England, the tale of football is marked by royal decrees and public disdain.

As Britannica outlines, football in medieval England faced its fair share of challenges. King Henry IV, much like his Scottish counterpart, issued a proclamation banning football. Despite these royal decrees, football persisted, played passionately in towns and villages.

This era’s football was far from the organised sport we know today. Dubbed “folk football,” it was played with minimal rules and often resulted in chaos and disruption, leading to its banishment by the authorities.

In these early years, football was a wild, unrefined sport, far from the structured game that would later capture the world’s heart.

Its journey through the medieval and early modern periods is a testament to its resilience and the unbreakable spirit of its players and awesome fans.

Expert insights

“Much of what we know about early football in England derives from banning orders. Indeed, the first recorded use of the word ‘foot-ball’ in English dates from 1314, when London’s mayor prohibited games in the city, accusing them of causing ‘great uproar’ and ‘tumults’.”

Historian Simon Inglis, English Heritage
football history - old leather football ball in a changing room

Shaping the Game: The Standardization of Football Rules in 19th Century England

Fortunately, in the 19th century, football underwent a transformative phase in England, evolving from a chaotic pastime into a standardised sport.

The Beginning of Standardised Rules

By the early 1800s in England, loads of people were playing different varieties of football, each with its unique set of rules.

As Britannica reveals, football was a popular winter game in public schools like Winchester, Charterhouse, and Eton, but each school played by its own guidelines.

This diversity in rules posed a challenge, especially when former schoolmates entered universities and attempted to continue playing.

The University of Cambridge, recognizing this issue, took a significant step in 1843 by attempting to standardize the rules, culminating in the “Cambridge Rules” of 1848, which were widely adopted across schools and universities.

The Cambridge Rules at a Glance

RuleDescription
KickingThe ball may only be kicked, not carried or handled.
CatchingA player may make a fair catch and claim a free kick.
TrippingNo tripping or using the hands to push opponents.
OffsideA player is offside unless there are three opponents between them and the opposing team’s goal.
Ball out of playWhen the ball goes out of bounds, it is kicked back into play.
Goal scoringGoals are scored by kicking the ball between goalposts (the specifics of goal height and width were not standardised early on).
soccer history

The Formation of the Football Association: A Milestone in Football’s History

The journey towards a unified rulebook reached a crucial juncture in 1863 with the formation of the Football Association (FA) in England.

This was when football’s first governing body was established, leading to the codification of the rules.

The FA brought together clubs and schools, creating a set of rules that were universally accepted.

This was a significant development, as prior attempts at standardisation, like the Cambridge and Sheffield rules, had not achieved nationwide consensus.

DID YOU KNOW? Early football balls were actually made from inflated pig bladders! They were then encased in leather for better durability. This was before the invention of vulcanized rubber – a change that made footballs more consistent in shape and bounce.

The Sheffield Rules: Innovating Football Play

Parallel to the efforts of the FA, the Sheffield Rules emerged, playing a vital role in shaping modern football.

Sheffield Football Club, founded in 1857, initiated these rules, which introduced critical elements like corners and free-kicks.

Though the handling of the ball was still partially allowed, the Sheffield Rules significantly reduced it and clarified physical contact limits between players.

These rules gained widespread acceptance in northern England, contributing significantly to the evolution of football.

The 19th century was a defining era for football in England. The establishment of standard rules by the FA and the Sheffield Rules laid the foundation for modern football.

This era marked the transition from a disorderly pastime to a structured, universally loved sport. Hurrah!

The Sheffield Rules at a Glance.

RuleDescription
HandlingForbidden, except for ‘pushing’ or ‘hitting’ the ball with hands, and a ‘fair catch’ (catch from another player without the ball touching the ground).
Physical Contact‘Hacking’ (kicking), tripping, and holding opponents forbidden, but pushing and charging allowed.
Free KickAwarded for a fair catch, but a goal could not be scored directly from such a free kick.
Goal ScoringCould only be scored by kicking; dimensions or type of goal not specified in detail.
Throw-inAwarded to the first team to touch the ball after it went out of play, thrown in at right-angles to the touchline.
Kick-outA ‘kick-out’ from 25 yards when the ball went out of play over the goal-line.
OffsideNo offside law.
Team NumbersNo specific number of players on each side dictated.

Expert insights

“What sets the Sheffield Rules of 1858 apart is that they would go on to influence the evolution of the modern game.”

Martin Westby, Author of A History of Sheffield Football 1857-1889
retro soccer image

The Global Game: Football’s Rise to Worldwide Popularity

Setting common rules paved the way for the sport to spread across continents. It created those big, defining moments that have carved out football’s rich and beloved history and seen it truly become the global sensation that it is today.

Spreading the Football Spirit: From England to the World

Following the standardisation of rules in 19th century England, football began to spread its wings beyond British shores.

The sport’s globalisation accelerated after the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863.

The standardised rules made it easier for countries around the world to adopt and adapt the game. This was the era when football truly began to transform from a national pastime into a global spectacle.

FIFA: Uniting the World Through Football

A landmark moment in football’s history was the establishment of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) in 1904.

FIFA was created in response to the growing need for an international governing body for football.

This organisation played a crucial role in further standardising rules and arranging international competitions, creating a global football community that transcended national boundaries.

retro football match in the 1980's

The First International Match and the World Cup

Football’s history is marked by several key events that really boosted its global appeal.

The first international football match, played between England and Scotland in 1872, was a significant step in the sport’s internationalisation.

Then, in 1930, another monumental event took place – the first FIFA World Cup in Uruguay.

This competition brought nations together in a celebration of football, showcasing the sport’s ability to unite people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

The Rise of Women’s Football

So what about women’s football? Well today, women’s football stands tall, a testament to skill, determination, and resilience.

But the journey to this point wasn’t straightforward; it’s a narrative of struggle, perseverance, and ultimate triumph!

Early Days of Women’s Football

Women’s football had its humble beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Despite social norms and restrictions, women found their way onto the football fields. Notably, during World War I, women’s teams formed in factories across Britain, playing matches that drew large crowds.

One of the most famous teams from this era, the Dick, Kerr Ladies from Preston, played numerous charity matches, drawing attention to women’s football.

image of the 1921 dick kerr ladies team
Image of the 1921 Dick, Kerr’s Ladies F.C. courtesy of Wikipedia

Facing Challenges

The growth of women’s football wasn’t without its hurdles.

In 1921, the Football Association in England banned women from playing on FA-affiliated grounds, a ban that lasted until 1971!

The Football Association (FA) at the time claimed they were preventing a financial scandal, alleging misallocation of charity funds to players, but the FA Council minutes revealed a deeper bias:

“The Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”​​.

Similar restrictions were seen globally and hindered the growth and recognition of women’s football.

Key Milestones in Women’s Football

Despite these challenges, women’s football continued to grow.

Key milestones include the formation of women’s football leagues and clubs around the world.

A landmark moment was the inauguration of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, held in China.

This tournament signified global recognition and was a major step forward for the sport.

Tianhe Stadium womens world cup 1991
Tianhe Stadium (Guangzhou, China) by Alexchen4836

The Modern Era of Women’s Football

Today, women’s football is characterized by increasing professionalization and a booming fan base.

Leagues such as the NWSL in the United States and the FA Women’s Super League in England showcase immense talent.

Stars like our favorites Beth Mead, Alessia Russo, and Mary Earps have become household names, inspiring a new generation of female football players.

Expert insights

“The visibility of women’s sport continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, due in main part to the unbelievable progress of our female athletes on the global stage.”

Tammy Parlour, Women’s Sport Trust CEO. 

Looking Ahead

The future of women’s football holds promise. With growing investment, increasing viewership, and a push for gender equality in sports, women’s football is poised for even greater heights.

In our own local leagues we play in here at Kit Queen – the Women’s Recreational League has doubled from 15 teams last season to 30 this year!

We’re over the moon that so many women of all ages are starting or getting back to football again.

From playing in the shadows to shining on the world stage, women have carved their rightful place in the history and heart of football.

We absolutely loved watching the Women’s World Cup in 2023 and can’t wait for the next one!

The Final Score.

From the muddy fields of medieval England to the glimmering stadiums of the modern world is a testament to its enduring appeal and universal spirit.

The formation of FIFA and the introduction of global competitions like the World Cup have not only popularised football but have also made it a symbol of international camaraderie and sporting excellence.

As we reflect on football’s past, it’s clear that the game has transcended its humble beginnings to become more than just a sport – it’s a global language that connects us all.

This article was written by

  • Anna Adams, Creative Director & Content Lead

    Hi there! I'm Anna Adams, your go-to source for all things women's football. I've been crazy about football for over 20 years, ever since I was kicking a ball around with my brothers as a kid. I've turned my passion into a career where I get to share all the cool stuff about football with you. As a content lead, I've had the awesome opportunity to work with various sports brands and publications. Whether it's the latest gear, pro tips, or just some cool football trivia, I'm all about making f...