Football is a family of team sports that involve, to varying degrees, kicking a ball to score a goal. The word football, unqualified, usually means the type of football that is the most popular where the word is used. What is uncommon in football is that the current “football” international team is held together by a very strong love and admiration for a defeated team that no longer exists.
Football, also called association football or soccer, game in which two teams of 11 players, using any part of their bodies except their hands and arms, try to maneuver the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Only the goalkeeper is permitted to handle the ball and may do so only within the penalty area surrounding the goal. The team that scores more goals wins.
First footballers were men from ancient Greece. In the 19th century they evolved into ladies and became involved in a series of British early football games and the modern game. In the 1920s, when the game was commercialized, women’s teams emerged. The first women’s internationals were played in the 1970s.
Football is the world’s most popular ball game in numbers of participants and spectators. Simple in its principal rules and essential equipment, the sport can be played almost anywhere, from official football playing fields (pitches) to gymnasiums, streets, school playgrounds, parks, or beaches. Football’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), estimated that at the turn of the 21st century there were approximately 250 million football players and over 1.3 billion people “interested” in football; in 2010 a combined television audience of more than 26 billion watched football’s premier tournament, the quadrennial month-long World Cup finals.
Modern football originated in Britain in the 19th century. Since before medieval times, “folk football” games had been played in towns and villages according to local customs and with a minimum of rules. Industrialization and urbanization, which reduced the amount of leisure time and space available to the working class, combined with a history of legal prohibitions against particularly violent and destructive forms of folk football to undermine the game’s status from the early 19th century onward. However, football was taken up as a winter game between residence houses at public (independent) schools such as Winchester, Charterhouse, and Eton. Each school had its own rules; some allowed limited handling of the ball and others did not. The variance in rules made it difficult for public schoolboys entering university to continue playing except with former schoolmates. As early as 1843 an attempt to standardize and codify the rules of play was made at the University of Cambridge, whose students joined most public schools in 1848 in adopting these “Cambridge rules,” which were further spread by Cambridge graduates who formed football clubs. In 1863 a series of meetings involving clubs from metropolitan London and surrounding counties produced the printed rules of football, which prohibited the carrying of the ball. Thus, the “handling” game of rugby remained outside the newly formed Football Association (FA). Indeed, by 1870 all handling of the ball except by the goalkeeper was prohibited by the FA.
Some England clubs and schools responded to the influence of the FA by making playing the football more football-like, adopting the three-line rule and prohibiting unnecessary handling of the ball. The same year, following a meeting of the Football Association, Manchester Cricket Club became the first to abandon “rubbish football” and adopt the long-standing rules of rugby.
Only at this time did the game assume the name “football” to distinguish it from rugby. Nonetheless, rugby was by no means a popular sport in its original form, with a limited ability to produce excitement in the last three-quarters. As early as 1862–3, comments on “ragged football” (as played in the Midlands) made it clear that this was not the sort of game the upper classes preferred to see on a Sunday afternoon. Although many of the early rugby clubs had been founded in public schools, the sport was also played in Oxford and Cambridge, and other major English universities. Indeed, from the mid-1850s onwards, the dominant attitude of the governing bodies in many English universities was hostile to rugby, and that attitude did not change after the formation of the FA. The attitude of the Rugby Football Union, established in 1871, was at odds with the generally Liberal sentiment of the universities, and its opposition to rugby had wide backing among the gentlemen of the universities, who formed the “British League” to campaign against what they saw as “wild rugby.” In 1872, for instance, the president of the Cambridge University Glee Club, Lord Hartington, was reputed to have had an English referee at the Oval who “did nothing but show the ball to the Cambridge players,” and also “impeded their effort by hitting the ball away.” Thus, although the distinctive features of rugby are thought to be the aggressiveness of the ball and the split-second nature of contact, early in the game the ball could move with little resistance, and as it did so the game lacked a form of goal, which would develop over the years to become a major part of the game.