Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. But who invented it?
Published November 17, 2022
8 min read
Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport, and for good reason–beloved by at least 265 million people worldwide, it’s easy to play in a random yard or field and instantly relate to the players racing across stadiums like the ones in Qatar hosting this year’s World Cup. But if your goal is to find the ancestor to all of that running, kicking and cooperating, you should be prepared to flip your globe and turn your watch back. Here’s everything you need to know about soccer’s origins and why it is the most popular sport in the world today.
Soccer’s ancient origins
The Chinese were the first to get their kicks by kicking balls into nets for sport in the third century B.C., and the game known globally as football was formalized in England in the 19th century. The Americas are the origin of modern ball games. (See vintage pictures of soccer players around the world. )
“The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica,” says Mary Miller, a professor of the history of art at Yale University who has studied extensive evidence of the sport. In Mesoamerica, a vast historical region that stretches from Mexico to Costa Rica and includes civilizations that flourished long before Columbus discovered them. Many of these people used a heavy ball made out of tree resin.
It’s unclear exactly where the game was invented, but it was popular across Mesoamerican cultures like the Teotihuacanos, Aztecs, and Maya beginning about 3,000 years ago. Its name varied–ullamaliztli in Aztec, pok-ta-pok or pitz in Maya. Its rules included moves like bumping the ball with body parts, or using bats or racquets to keep it in play. (Who were the Maya? Decoding the ancient civilization’s secrets. )
Many of these games were played with 16-pound rubber balls, which still exist in the archaeological record. Other evidence of game play ranges from ceramic vessels to more than 1,300 large stone courts that can be found across the region.
Aztec players bounced the ball back and forth between teams using only their hips and buttocks (feet or hands were off limits). They attempted to hit the back wall of their opponents’ court with one bounce. Many suffered life-threatening injuries from the heavy, hard ball. A player who managed to place the ball in a high ring on their opponent’s side was deemed a winner and a major honor.
Though it was played as an everyday pickup sport, much like soccer or basketball, this ball game also held a sacred place in religion and warfare for Mesoamerican cultures. It was used by Aztec kings to replace war, gain ruling rights or diffuse diplomatic dramas. The stakes were even higher in Maya and Veracruz cultures where the losers of ritual games were sacrificed.
Although the details are not clear, some courts are decorated by panels that depict the bloody sacrifice of losing players. Sacrifice and sport are closely related in a Maya creation myth, too: It shows a pair of ball-playing twins defeating the lords of the underworld on the court. They go on to become sun and moon.
Despite evidence that the losers sometimes got the literal axe, says Miller, some 20th-century archaeologists refused to believe that anyone except the winners were killed. She said that they couldn’t believe the Maya had committed human sacrifice. “We now know that’s absolute hooey, and so is the notion that any victorious player would be sacrificed.” In Maya mythology, the loser of the ball game is decapitated, and today’s scholars widely accept that losers, not winners, got the chop.
British schools invent a new incarnation
Though other cultures like Native Americans and Indigenous Australians played similar games, the modern sport that some people know as soccer–and many others know as football–was birthed in British schools. Although they had played variations of the game informally for centuries, the sport became formalized in the 19th century.
In the mid 19th century, developments in transportation, labor, and technology gave people the leisure and means to travel to competitive matches on mown lawn fields. By the 1840s, a variety of British schools created their own standards of play, making it possible to hold tournaments among players who all knew the same rules. Over time, two different rule sets began to dominate the sport. The Sheffield Football Club allowed teams a free kick if their competitor disobeyed the rules of play. The ball was not allowed to be carried by players at Cambridge University. (Looking back on more than 150 years of English football’s most prestigious cup. )
As the sport’s popularity ballooned, players banded together in the London Football Association. In 1877, Sheffield officially adopted the so-called “London Rules.” By then, some teams had begun to recruit widely, secretly paying working-class league members.
Upper-class footballers wanted the sport to remain amateur. But in 1885, they finally agreed to allow professional players, enabling a further boom in the sport. By 1904, the sport was so popular it had gone international, and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) began that same year.
Soccer’s success skyrocketed from there. After the sport debuted in the 1908 Olympic Games and the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, professional soccer flourished. Today, FIFA remains the sport’s governing body, raking in $755.5 million in 2021 alone. But the heart of the sport is still on the field. Here, everyone can enjoy the action, from young children to experienced pro athletes. Soccer’s spirit, which Miller calls one of “intricate team thinking,” is alive and well both in modern incarnations of the ball game and the millions of amateur and pro players who run, weave, and kick their way down an official or makeshift soccer pitch every day.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 15, 2018. It has been updated.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.