While soccer, or association football as it’s known in most countries, is a game of grace and tactics, it was once an archaic violent sport without a universal set of rules. In the mid 19th century, football was commonly played all over England, but no one could seem to agree on the “proper” way to play it.
Although people have been playing soccer-like games for thousands of years, England wanted to standardize the game so that rival towns, schools, organizations and countries could properly compete against each other. In order to resolve this dilemma, a summit was called in 1863 to lay the groundwork for a universally accepted set of laws.
Soccer Gets Organized
The foundation for soccer as it’s played today was laid in 1863, when the Football Association was officially formed. At the time, what we now know as rugby and soccer were both considered “football.” However, the members of the Football Association could not agree on the issues of body tackling and the use of the hands to advance the ball up field.
The result of these talks was that the two sides decided to split and go their separate ways. From that day on, soccer was known as “association football” and rugby became “rugby football.” Along with this new official title for soccer was the formation of the “Rules of the Game,” many of which remain the same to this day.
As soccer grew in popularity throughout the United Kingdom, the desire to see countries compete against each other dramatically increased. The first international match was contested by England and Scotland in 1872. Despite the fact that the match finished as a 0-0 draw, the attendance of over 4,000 spectators meant that there was a serious demand for the budding sport of soccer.
The International Football Association Board
Following the success of the England-Scotland match – and the varying other international matches that were held thereafter – it was decided that a represented body was needed in order to further develop the rules of the game. In 1886, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) was formed with representatives from each of the varying territories of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales). To this day, IFAB is still responsible for maintaining soccer's laws of the game, of which there are now 17. It has also expanded its representation to include four members of soccer’s international governing body, FIFA.
The success of international soccer, and the nationalistic fervor that accompanied it, led to the subsequent formation of clubs. Club soccer – which is generally associated with a city, region, or cultural group – allowed people to find an outlet for not only their love of the sport, but also for expressing pride in local culture and beliefs. The first soccer league was founded in England in 1888 with a twelve-team format. This model would later be expanded and replicated by countries around the world.
Following the establishment of England’s Football Association and the successful exportation of the game, 1904 saw the founding of soccer’s international governing body, known as Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The acronym FIFA is the way to which the organization is most popularly referred today. FIFA is the organization responsible for putting on the World Cup and also for releasing the world rankings for national teams.
The World Cup
Contrary to popular belief, the World Cup is not held every four years. Technically, it is held “over the course” of every four years. The 32-team tournament held every four years (in a different host nation each time) is the tournament finals. Over the course of the preceding three years, the 208 men’s national teams engage in group play to determine who will have the prestigious honor of representing their country in the finals.
The first World Cup was held in 1930 in Uruguay. Since then the tournament final has been held every four years, with the exception of 1942, when Europe’s land and people were ravaged by the horrors of World War II. Despite the inclusion of hundreds of national teams, only seven countries have ever won the Cup: Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (3), Uruguay (2), Argentina (2), England (1) and France (1). Although they practically invented soccer, England has not won the tournament since 1966, a fact which has not eluded their glory starved fans for the past five decades.
Religion & Politics
While some think of soccer merely as a game, for many people it is a way of life. Children are raised in households where they are encouraged to love their soccer club and national team with undying loyalty bordering on fanaticism. Why is this? In the world of soccer, teams are often a representative of a social class, political group, or religion.
Take the city of Glasgow for instance, which has a fan base that is divided by religious affiliations. Glasgow’s catholic population supports Celtic FC, while the protestant population supports Rangers FC. The two teams are bitter rivals and their matches are often overshadowed by notorious fan-on-fan violence. These cross-city rivalries are commonly referred to as Derbies.
The intricacies of soccer culture have filled the pages of countless books, going so far as to claim that wars have been fought (El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969), and peace has been brokered (Ivory Coast, 2005), all in the name of the sport. For better or worse, culture has always played and will continue to play a huge part in its history.
Hooliganism Runs Rampant
While Soccer had reached widespread popularity by the mid 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it truly blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon. Sadly, along with this popularity came a new type of fandom called hooliganism.
Hooliganism grew out of the large number of unemployed workers in many of England’s industrial blue-collar cities. With no job and no lease on life, it served as a violent outlet for men to vent their frustrations and flaunt their hyper-masculinity. Hooligans also organized themselves into fan groups called Ultras or Firms, organizations that could best be described as brotherhoods of soccer.
By no means was hooliganism restricted to England alone. It spread like a plague across Europe, turning the “beautiful game” into a nightmare for casual fans and police alike whenever grudge matches were played. Hooliganism peaked in the 1980s and its detrimental effect on soccer came to a peak in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989.
The disaster was the result of a human crush, in which fans were packed so tightly in a narrow concrete tunnel that 96 lost their lives either by compressive asphyxia (the inability of thelungs to function due to intense weight or pressure) or simply by being trampled by other overzealous fans. Hillsborough is the worst soccer disaster to date and it represented the boiling point of a problem that had gone unchecked for far too long. Following Hillsborough, soccer in England dramatically cleaned up its act with stadium renovations and innovations in crowd control and policing. For better or worse, depending on who you ask, hooliganism is now a pale shadow of its former self.
The Return of the Galacticos
While the wages of professional athletes in the modern sports era have always been exorbitant, recent fiscal irresponsibility in soccer has threatened to turn the conventional club models on their respective heads. The most notable issue being that some clubs simply can’t afford to remain competitive with their wealthier counterparts.
In the summer of 2009 alone, Real Madrid spent over $300 million on transfer fees (paying a team for the rights to a player), and that’s not even including the astronomical wages they will have to pay those players once they arrive. The team Real Madrid is assembling is being referred to as the second coming of the Galacticos (the original Galacticos included Luis Figo, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Michael Owen, Raul, Iker Casillas, and Roberto Carlos), because of its seemingly invincible collection of talent.
To give their level of excess some context, take the example of the storied English club Newcastle. The club is currently for sale on the open market for a price of $165 million. That means that in one summer, Real Madrid has bought a handful of players (Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso) for the price of two Newcastles. Something doesn’t add up.
With little doubt that soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world, and still growing, one can rest assured that there are many legends left to be written in the history books of what is affectionately referred to as “the beautiful game.” Regardless of whether you are a player or merely a casual fan, there is room in that history for you to play your part.