A Brief History of Soccer

Image credit: 

As a German soccer fan, I've been doing quite a bit of screaming the past few weeks—especially on Tuesday, after Germany defeated Turkey for a place in the Euro Cup finals against Spain on Sunday. This beautiful game inspires a fanatical devotion in its fans not seen in any other sport. But it wasn't always the technical game you see before you today. In fact, soccer boasts a colorful history that has everything from roaming mobs to decapitated heads. Here's a quick look.

Military training and fertility rites

The earliest recorded evidence of a soccer-type game comes to us from the third century B.C. in China. A military manual from the Han dynasty details an exercise in which a leather ball, filled with either hair or feathers, was kicked into a tiny net fixed on narrow bamboo canes. Similar games have been played all over the world, leading scholars to suggest that the game may have originated in some parts as a pagan fertility rite, with the ball symbolizing the sun. Or people just liked kicking things.

Kicking around a decapitated prince

The predecessor of modern football (and by football, I mean soccer) started out a celebration of sorts. During the 3rd century, the British would celebrate victories against their enemies with a rousing game of football. Legend has it that the first time this celebratory sport was played in Britain was after the defeat of a Danish Prince. After decapitating the Prince, in true barbarian fashion, they decided to kick around his head. No word on who had to clean up after them.

Mob football

By the 8th century, a good portion of the British Isles were playing soccer. The aptly named "mob football" had an indeterminate number of players, almost no rules, and wasn't even played on a field. Hundreds of players, usually members of two neighboring villages, would attempt to get the ball into the designated area by any means necessary during matches that could last all day. This resulted in plenty of fighting, biting and punching as the large mob moved through the village streets. In some cases, the ball or sphere being used was too large to kick, so the players simply kicked each other instead.

Hustling over large balls

Although the game was frequently played by aristocrats (who used a pig's bladder as a ball), King Edward II was none too happy to see his citizens mobbing the streets and beating each other just for fun. To combat what he considered a vulgar sport, he passed laws that would imprison anyone caught playing soccer. In his proclamation, he said, "For as much as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise, which God forbid, we command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city future." Queen Elizabeth I took it a step further. Not only would she send you to jail for a week for playing mob football, she would also force you to go to church to seek penance.

The origin of halftime

Early football players pretty much made up the rules as they went along, resulting in some very interesting and impossible-to-referee games. Some teams would pick up the ball and run around like mad, while others considered it cheating. To make it fair, teams decided to divide the game into halves, playing by the rules of one team during the first half and then switching it up for the second. The break we know as half-time was born.

Isn't it called football?

In 1863, schools from across England met to decide on a standard set of rules for the game of football. Trouble was, they couldn't agree on a standard set of rules. They remained divided into two camps, those who supported the Cambridge rules (no hands) and those who liked the Rugby school rules (carry the ball all you want). The camps split and as a result, The Football Association was formed.

Around that same time, those crazy kids at Oxford University created a trendy slang in which they shortened words and added "er" to the end (Rugby was now called "rugger.") Legend has it that one such trendsetter, Charles Wreford Brown, was asked if he played the sport of rugger. "No" he replied, "Soccer," having shortened association into "soc." Just think, if this actually did happen, and if he had chosen differently, we could be talking about the sport called "footer." Or "asser."

[Image courtesy Euro2008.uefa.com.]

More from mental_floss...

June 28, 2008 - 6:17am
submit to reddit