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Did a man invent football?

Football is one of the most popular sports in the world, with over 4 billion fans worldwide. Many people assume that football was invented by men, but the origins of the sport are more complex than that. In this article, we will examine the question of who invented football and look at the evidence for different theories about its beginnings.

Early Forms of Football-Like Games

Games involving kicking a ball have existed for thousands of years across many cultures. For example, ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilizations had various games that resembled football. In ancient Greece, Episkyros was played between two teams who had to carry a ball across a line on the ground. In ancient China, Cuju was played with a leather ball stuffed with feathers, with the objective of kicking the ball through a small hole.

These early ball games were important precursors to modern football, establishing the idea of teams competing to move a ball to a designated spot using primarily their feet. However, it is difficult to trace a direct lineage from any one ancient game to contemporary football. The early games had varying rules, numbers of players, and sizes of playing areas. There was no standardized form that can be definitively said to have led to the codification of football.

Medieval and Early Modern Era

In medieval Europe, many villages and towns played their own unique versions of football. These early football games were often chaotic mob contests involving unlimited numbers of players from rival villages and towns. Most allowed players to kick, throw, and carry a pig’s bladder or other inflated animal skin to markers that served as primitive goals.

Games often took place on holy days and some even became part of larger religious festivals. For example, La Soule was played in northern France starting in the 12th century and involved moving a large ball to the opponents’ goal using hands, feet, sticks, and bats. In Florence, Italy, Calcio Fiorentino emerged in the 16th century as a game that resembled a mix of rugby and wrestling.

While these mob games certainly contained elements of what we now recognize as football, their rules and structures varied widely depending on time and location. There was no unified path of development toward modern football.

English Public Schools Set Standards

The roots of contemporary football become clearer in English public schools during the early 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution changed patterns of work and education, leading private schools such as Eton, Rugby, and Charterhouse began codifying their versions of football with established rules.

Each school had its own rules and styles of play. For example, Rugby School allowed players to carry the ball, while Eton and Charterhouse did not. However, common elements included limiting team sizes to 11 or fewer players per side and restricting handling of the ball to only certain positions. The games took place on demarcated rectangular grass fields with goal posts at either end and involved advancing the ball towards the opposition’s goal primarily by kicking.

Crucial Developments

Some key innovations that formed the basis of modern football emerged from English public schools in the early 1800s:

  • 1823 – William Webb Ellis supposedly catches ball and runs with it at Rugby School, introducing the idea of running with the ball
  • 1841 – First set of written rules for football established at Eton
  • 1845 – First set of standardized soccer rules created at Cambridge University
  • 1848 – Establishment of formalized rules for football at Rugby School
  • 1857 – First soccer club, Sheffield FC, founded in England

By mid-century, former public school students were taking versions of football rules back into their communities and forming clubs. This spread led to increasing standardization.

The FA, Sheffield Rules, and Professionalization

In 1863, the earliest formal governing body for football was established in England – The Football Association (FA). A series of meetings led by Ebenezer Cobb Morley and others led to agreement on a unified code of rules based largely on the Cambridge rules. This original FA code outlawed carrying the ball.

However, some clubs, particularly in Sheffield, used a version based on the Rugby School rules that allowed carrying the ball and handling. In 1867, the Sheffield Football Association was formed to regulate clubs in the city that played by Sheffield Rules.

For years, games were played between teams adhering to both FA rules (association football) and Sheffield rules (later called “rugby football”). It was not until the late 19th century that the FA’s rules became dominant across England and the precursor to modern soccer was established.

Other key events in football’s development as an organized sport included:

  • 1871 – First official international soccer match between England and Scotland
  • 1872 – First FA cup competition
  • 1885 – Professionalism legalized
  • 1888 – Football League formed as first professional league

The creation of professional leagues and cups led to rapid growth in the sport’s popularity. By the early 20th century, football had emerged as a major spectator sport and entertainment business across Great Britain and beyond.

Who Invented Football? Conclusion

Based on the history, it is difficult to credit any single individual as the inventor of football. Elements key to the game gradually developed over centuries. Many cultures seem to have independently created ball games involving kicking and basic goals or targets.

No ancient game can be cleanly linked as the predecessor to contemporary football. In England, students and staff at public schools formalized sets of rules in the 1800s that laid foundations for the FA’s rules. Even then, variants such as the Sheffield rules co-existed and contributed to the sport’s evolution.

Other individuals who made key contributions to shaping modern football include:

  • Ebenezer Cobb Morley – Drafted original Football Association rules and founded the FA
  • Old Rugbeians who took football rules back into their communities
  • Sheffield club players and officials who helped popularize Sheffield Rules

Rather than tracing football to a single inventor, its creation was a collective process involving thousands of players across centuries gradually converting chaotic mob games into organized sports. Football as we know it today emerged from the codification and diffusion of rules from English public schools in the 19th century. The sport’s rapid growth in popularity beyond elite schools led to professionalization and the dominance of the FA’s early rules into the game played around the world.

The Global Spread of Football

While founded in England, football rapidly spread across the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Key events included:

  • 1873 – First international game outside the British Isles (England vs Scotland in Glasgow)
  • 1878 – First game in Spain
  • 1893 – Argentina Football Association founded as first outside British Isles
  • 1900 – First Tour of Europe by British amateur team
  • 1904 – FIFA founded in Paris to oversee international competition
  • 1930 – First World Cup held in Uruguay
  • 1958 – First World Cup held in Europe (Sweden)

The British influence was significant, with British railway workers and sailors often introducing the game to local populations. However, local cultures shaped how the game was adopted and played in different countries.

Distinct national and regional styles of play emerged across the world over the 20th century. For example, Brazil became known for its creative, improvisational style while German teams were associated with physical discipline. Football’s global reach made it the world’s most popular sport, both for participants and fans.

Women and Football

Women played important early roles in the growth of football as spectators, organizers, and participants. However, women’s football faced many barriers and took longer to develop into a professional sport.

Key Dates in Women’s Football History

  • 1895 – First recorded women’s football match between north and south of River Tyne in England
  • 1921 – English FA bans women’s teams from using facilities
  • 1937 – First women’s football match at Wembley Stadium draws 55,000 fans
  • 1971 – Ban on women’s football by FA lifted
  • 1991 – First Women’s World Cup held in China
  • 2011 – Record women’s World Cup TV audience of over 13 million in US
  • 2019 – Women’s World Cup breaks attendance records

While women played football competitively from the early 20th century, it was often banned or discouraged. Attitudes gradually changed from the 1960s and beyond. Today, fans and media pay increasing attention to women’s football at both club and international levels.

Football’s Global Reach Today

Football is truly a global sport, played in every country by hundreds of millions of people. FIFA recognizes over 200 national associations. Key facts illustrate football’s international reach:


  • Over 240 million players worldwide in 2006 (FIFA estimate)
  • Fastest growing female team sport – 29 million women and girls play

World Cup

  • Most watched event in world – Estimated 3.2 billion viewers in 2018
  • 1 billion viewers for 2019 Women’s World Cup final

Leagues and Clubs

  • Top clubs have fan bases across the world
  • English Premier League broadcast in 189 countries
  • Yearly viewership of La Liga (Spain) and Bundesliga (Germany) over 1 billion


League Annual Revenue
NFL (American Football) $13 billion
English Premier League $6.2 billion
German Bundesliga $4.4 billion
Spanish La Liga $3.4 billion

Football generates more revenue globally than any other sport. The European football market alone was worth over $30 billion in 2018-2019.


In conclusion, football developed over centuries with input from various cultures into the world’s most popular sport. Its origins likely lie in ancient ball games that evolved into mob contests in medieval England. Key rules were eventually codified in the 19th century at English public schools.

With early governing bodies like the FA and professionalization, football rapidly expanded beyond its elite school roots. Regional playing styles emerged across Europe and South America alongside the international game. Although initially excluded, women’s football gained acceptance and recognition in the late 20th century.

Rather than naming a single inventor, the creation of football is best understood as a long, haphazard process of rule formation and diffusion. Its growth reflects football’s ability to absorb diverse cultures while retaining accessibility and excitement for players and fans.