The history of the beautiful game

by Daniel Roodt


Photo by Vienna Reyes on Unsplash

[Caption: Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, a football icon that seats over 80000 fans. Stadiums like this cover the globe and provide venues for multi-million dollar stars to battle it out.]


Football, soccer, the beautiful game. A game played by millions and watched by billions. Something that has captured the hearts of people all around the world. It unites some and divides others.

A game that has been played throughout centuries and has culminated in multi-million dollar transfer deals and global superstars competing in multinational tournaments watched by billions.

Versions of football had been played globally, before the invention of the game we know today. Ball games similar to football were played in ancient China and Japan.


However, the development of modern football has its origins in Britain, where it started to become more formalised.

Some of the earlier versions tended to be quite violent and would often lead to punch-ups between the teams on the field.

It would also sometimes spiral into players destroying businesses and homes as games did not exist on a field, but rather throughout the whole town. This was down to having minimal rules, no referees, and games sometimes consisting of 1000 people.

As the game was popular amongst a variety of social classes, rules started to be drawn up in the 19th century. The History Channel states that, "An 1848 meeting at Cambridge drew up rules outlining goal kicks, throw-ins, and goalies' rights, all of which are still included today."

These rules were created at English public schools (private schools elsewhere) such as Eton. This was an attempt to move away from its violent origins and properly codify the game.

The English Football Association (FA) was formed in 1863 and was the first of its kind.

They drew up a further set of rules as there had previously been two versions of football that were played. With the inception of the FA, a single set of rules was created.

However, the rules of the FA were not widespread and were ignored in many cases. This was due to a minuscule number of clubs belonging to the FA.

Over time their rules prevailed, and more and more teams began to follow them.

Three years later, players, other than goalkeepers, were forbidden from handling the ball, which separated it from rugby.

In 1871, the Football Association Challenge Cup, which is known today as the FA Cup, was created. It was supposed to feature 15 teams; however, three of the teams dropped out. The FA Cup is still played today and is the oldest football tournament in the world.

Today 736 teams compete in the FA Cup with it culminating in a final that takes place at Wembley Stadium in London every season. Manchester City are the current holders after they beat Watford 6-0 in 2019.

The English Football League was the first football league in the world and was founded in 1888 by twelve clubs. It was to be played alongside the Football Association (FA) Cup. As more teams began to join the league, it expanded into two and continued to grow.

Today, the English Football League (EFL) consists of four divisions. These are the Premier League, founded in 1992 which is the first division. The second division, the EFL Championship, is preceded by EFL League One (3rd division) and EFL League Two (4th division).

All the divisions of English football are played in a round-robin format and operate on a promotion-relegation basis.

The first-ever international game of football recognised by FIFA took place in 1872. England played Scotland in Glasgow, and the match ended in a 0-0 stalemate. They would continue to play each other on multiple occasions over the years. Today, they have faced off 114 times.

The formations used in this game and many other football matches at the time were vastly different from the common formations of the 21st century. The Scottish team played with six forwards, and the English team played with eight forwards.

The advent of professional football sparked major change across the game and set it on its current trajectory.

In the 1870s and 1880s, professional football players were banned in England and Scotland. However, many clubs ignored this rule and secretly paid players to play for them.

Many working-class teams wanted professionalism legalised. This was due to the struggles of working six days a week and having to play football on the seventh. They argued they were at a significant disadvantage to upper-class players who did not have to work. As a result of not working, they had more time to rest and practice than working-class players.

Essentially players wanted only to play football instead of performing manual labour and playing football.

Eventually, professionalism was legalised in 1885 due to the FA fearing the northern English teams would break away if professionalism was still illegal.

However, in many nations, professional players were still illegal. In 1921 Swedish Club Malmo was relegated after it was revealed they were paying some of their players.

Without these original pioneers of professional football, multi-million Euro deals such as the one that took Neymar to Paris Saint Germain from Barcelona in 2017 may never have happened.

The spread of football to the rest of the world was a gradual process and was pioneered by British workers living and working abroad.

The first game of football played outside of Britain took place in Argentina in 1867. It was not played by Argentinians, but rather by British labourers working abroad.

The first football teams established outside of Britain were also by British nationals living abroad.

It was not until 1904 that international football began to become more formalised.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed by several European nations. These nations were France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

However, Britain and Ireland did not immediately join FIFA, because as the inventors of the game, they did not want to be bound by an international body. They did join a year later, although they only began to compete in the World Cup in 1950 even though it was started in 1930.

The reason for this was that the British FA had withdrawn from FIFA due to payment disputes for amateur players.

The Olympic Games presented the first opportunity for international teams to compete against each other at a formal competition. Men's football has been included at the Olympics since 1900 except in 1932 in Los Angeles.

In 1996, women's football was introduced into the Olympic programme and has been included since then.

However, the pinnacle of professional football is the FIFA World Cup. Uruguay hosted and won the first edition and would win it again in 1950. Brazil is the most successful nation in the history of the tournament, winning it five times.

This is largely thanks to the marauding team of the late 1950s and 1960s. This team spearheaded by Pelé, who some consider the greatest player of all time, won the tournament three times in the space of twelve years.

The latest winners of the World Cup are France, who won it in 2018 in Russia. France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the final with Kylian Mbappe becoming the first teenager since the legendary Pele to score in a World Cup final.

That was France's second world cup triumph, with their previous victory coming in 1998 thanks to the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

[Caption: Magazines like this show the global attraction of football superstars like Neymar and David Beckham. In the early days of football, many players were barely known outside their home town.]


Today football has culminated in one of the most popular sports in the world. Star players are idolised by fans worldwide. Tournaments like the Champions League and the World Cup are highlights in supporters' calendars and attract football's biggest names.

As legendary Italian player and manager Carlo Ancelotti once said, "Football is the most important of the less important things in the world."

Activate Online | Student Media

Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

Contact us for collaborations:

activate.editor@gmail.com