Where Did Soccer Originate?

like many sports, soccer began in the middle ages

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

How was soccer invented? Soccer, rugby, golf, tennis, cricket, and even baseball have their roots in the Middle Ages. As the World Cup plays out in Qatar, Wondrium has answers.

Soccer ball on dark background
Medieval soccer was sometimes played by neighboring towns and villages with the goals set a couple of miles apart. Photo by skynetphoto / Shutterstock

It’s easy to associate modern sports with the last one or two centuries, due to the age of the nationally or internationally represented organizations. For example, the NFL was founded in 1920, while the NBA is just 76 years old. How old is FIFA? Since FIFA was founded in 1904, it is just 118 years old. However, the sports that these organizations regulate predate them by centuries. Soccer, like so many other sports, was created sometime in the Middle Ages.

While watching the World Cup, you may find yourself asking: When was soccer invented? In his video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World, Dr. Robert S. J. Garland, the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University, unveils the age-old origins of one of the world’s most popular sports.

The Origin of Sports

“Many of our present-day sports were invented in the Middle Ages,” Dr. Garland said. “There were medieval equivalents of soccer, rugby, golf, bowls, cricket, tennis, field hockey, badminton, and wrestling. Baseball and [American] football, which derive from cricket and rugby, therefore, have their origins in the Middle Ages.”

It’s no mystery that professional sports today are dangerous. For example, the scandal of football players’ concussions and the subsequent complications has increasingly come to light in recent years. Prior to professional sports’ contemporary regulation and developments in sports medicine, athletes suffered permanent injury, and even death, much more regularly.

“That’s because there are virtually no rules; it’s all just rough and rumble,” Dr. Garland said.


What did soccer look like in the Middle Ages?

“The soccer pitch—if we can call it that; it’s actually just a tract of land—may be anything between a few dozen yards and a few miles in length,” Dr. Garland said. “If two villages are playing against each other, then the goals will be placed in the two different villages. Any number of players can take part; each team can field hundreds of players, if one village takes on another.”

The ball was about the size of a baseball and made of leather or a pig’s bladder stuffed with dried peas. Of course, the use of pig’s bladders as sports balls dates back at least 2,000 years in ancient Greece, and maybe further. Players could throw or kick the ball and play as dirty and violently as they liked, since no referees, doctors, or paramedics attended the games.

Sometimes a soccer pitch became a battlefield. Games often descended into “all-out warfare,” as Dr. Garland put it, which may have been the point. This means that soccer hooliganism dates back hundreds of years, though nowadays the violence mostly comes from the fans.

“One theory as to why medieval sports were so violent is that people were bored by the monotony of life, and so when it came to having time off they needed to let off steam.”

The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily