Friday, December 11, 2015
A Brief History of Soccer
This sport our children play preceded them by at least 2,000 years, and some historians say 3000 years. Historical evidence of “kick ball” has appeared independently in dozens of geographic areas that had no economic, political or religious overlaps. It has survived wars, pestilence, political upheaval, famine, drought and innumerable natural disasters. Only wrestling possibly predates this sport, which like wrestling is a relatively simple with minimal equipment needs. Given that soccer isn’t complex, it’s really not so remarkable that it developed early in so many cultures across a variety of topographies and lasted so long.
Evidence of soccer can be found in the archeology and recorded histories of China, Japan, Egypt, Greece, Meso-America and Australia. The earliest documentation of football was found in images on the Egyptian tomb of Baqet III (2500 B.C.E.) which depict young girls kicking around a ball. Generally the advent of any sport can be traced to the training of a country’s military. In Japan circa 1000 B.C.E. a game called Kemari arose to train soldiers’ agility and battle tactics. A field formed by four trees at the corners (cherry, maple, pine and willow) contained a contest played with teams of two to 12 players kicking a ball filled with sawdust. The first evidence of soccer in China appeared during the Tsin Dynasty (255-206 BC) with a game called Tsu-Chu, which literally translates as “kick ball”, which was played by soldiers who had to maneuver a leather ball through opponents into a small hole in a net strung between two poles. Amazingly, the first “international” football competition can be traced to a Kemari team playing against a Tsu-Chu team in 50 B.C.E. In some countries play also included the use of hands, which was true in Rome with the game Harpastum where combatants attempted to possess the ball as long as possible by playing “keep away” rather than driving down to a goal. The Greeks had a game called Episkyros which more closely resembled rugby but involved far more foot control. Native American tribes Algonquin and Powhatan played a game called Pasuckuakohowog, which translates as “they gather to play ball with the feet”. The game was played on the beach with goals a mile apart and teams of up to 100. It’s believed that the Pilgrims participated as part of befriending the tribes. Indigenous people of Australia competed in Marn Grook. Native Americans and Aborigines were isolated cultures who spontaneously developed the sport.
Modern soccer has its roots in Great Britain. In the 9th century entire towns would participate in kicking a pig’s bladder around the city center. These contests became so heated and violent, that they often resulted in injury and death. Alarmed by the increasing violence, King Edward III decreed in 1331 an end to the sport in England. Nearly 100 years later King James of Scotland issued the same decree for his nation. Nevertheless, this kicking game continued to be played, albeit less publicly. In fact it was a favorite sport for prisoners who had often lost their hands as punishment for the crime of theft. Queen Elizabeth I, still alarmed by the violent nature of the game, threatened footballers with a week in jail and then a penance in church. The first official rules for Italian football (called calico) were developed by Giovanni Bardi in 1580, which eventually formed the rudiments of modern soccer rules. Finally in 1605, soccer was declared legal again in Great Britain. Rules were not standardized until 200 years later in 1815, when Eton College established a set of rules based partially on those Bardi developed. The Eton rules were further revised and standardized by Cambridge, leading to the system our kids play by today. This ushered in the era of modern soccer and eventually that world-wide governing agency FIFA.
The first English Football Association was formed in 1863. By this time soccer was also being played quite regularly in North America, especially in the Northeast and among the Ivy League Schools. Surprisingly it wasn’t until the Rugby Association broke off into its own group that the rules of soccer were revised in 1869 to prohibit any use of hands except by the goal keeper. After that revision and the establishment of the penalty kick in 1888, most changes have been minor to help standardize the game world-wide. The bellwether mark in modern football was the formation of FIFA in 1904 with delegates from seven European countries. The first World Cup soon followed in 1930 comprising 13 teams. Now football was off and running into the international phenomenon it is today.
We in the United States came somewhat late to the party, even though we had played some form of the game since the early 1800’s. We began with two governing bodies for professional soccer: United States Football Association (USFA) (now known as United States Soccer Federation - USSF) and American Soccer League (ASL). These two leagues competed for recognition by FIFA, and USFA eventually won FIFA’s support. However, the battles between the groups escalated when the National Challenge Cup was created. The competition organized by the USFA regularly occurred during ASL’s off-season, making it nearly impossible for that league to field a team. Additionally ASL had most of their teams operated by Major League Baseball owners who wanted a closed league model just like baseball, which meant only a limited number of franchises would be in the league at the top level, and it would be the same teams every year regardless of their records. USFA wanted to run their league like the European open system where there were several league tiers and teams could be relegated to a lower tier or advanced to a higher tier based on their records. The conflict of these systems made it difficult to create a play-off system for the National Cup since ASL had a set number of teams who all expected to participate, and the USFA had an open system that allowed teams from minor leagues to possibly go all the way to the finals. The ASL had also been sanctioned by FIFA for signing European players to their teams who were still under contract to their European teams. Suffering from financial and Public Relations woes, ASL finally stopped the “soccer wars” by rescinding all their attempts to become the premier league in the United States.
Unfortunately the settlement between the USFA and ASL came on the cusp of the Great Depression. Unable to financially field competitive teams and find fans willing to pay to see soccer matches even the National Challenge Cup dissolved. However it would reappear later at the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, which has been won several times by amateur adult club teams. The factor that saved soccer was the large immigrant populations particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest, who created ethnic soccer clubs who were amateur but played regional games that attracted large crowds. Even today these clubs continue to provide a strong base for amateur soccer in America. As the country improved, organizers once again hoped to promote professional soccer in the United States. In 1968 the National Association of Soccer Leagues was organized and the league remained viable until 1984 when several factors lead to the final dissolution of the league in 1985. Luckily college soccer had grown in popularity and strength during this time and college players were looking to play professionally in their own country. In 1993 Major League Soccer (MLS) was formed with ten teams as part of the deal to have the 1994 FIFA World Cup in America. The MLS played its first season in 1996 ultimately expanding to 20 teams with most now playing in soccer-specific stadiums.
The explosion of men’s soccer was nearly dwarfed by the burst of women on the American scene. Attempts have been made to create a professional league for women with only limited success, but national women’s soccer has been amazing. The U.S. Women’s National Team has won three World Cups and two Olympics. Women put America on the world soccer stage in a way the men still struggled to do. In fact, the women’s team is the only American soccer team to ever win the World Cup. Despite limited professional opportunities to advance their skill levels and training, women players have put in the work on their own and signed with foreign professional teams to play when they can. Two professional leagues have folded since 1991. However in 2012 the National Women’s Soccer League was formed, playing its inaugural season in 2013. It has gotten some good backing as fans want to watch their favorite National Team players on a regular basis. There are now ten teams, which is how the MLS started. Since great professional soccer facilities now exist across the United States, the women have benefitted from that infrastructure, making it easier to maintain and market the league. They are still belt-tightening financially with salary caps of only $200,000, but the league seems to be growing and succeeding.
The youth level of soccer has had several off-shoots. USSF is the umbrella organization for all soccer in America. United States Youth Soccer Association began in 1974 and now has over 3 million youth players. US Youth Soccer sponsors the Olympic Development Program (ODP) which works to identify players to ultimately play on U.S. Soccer Youth National Teams, from which players will be developed for the Men’s and Women’s National Teams. ODP concentrates on selecting individual players from clubs all over the country to play on state, regional and national teams. USSF also formed a Developmental Program which establishes a training protocol that member clubs agree to follow for coaching their teams. These member clubs compete in four regions in the US, and National Team coaches regularly attend matches and tournaments to identify players for further development. Youth soccer has gained from the strength of adult soccer but now adult soccer is advancing from the influx of well-trained, passionate youth players.
Soccer has lasted over the eons primarily because, despite its present-day professionalism, media promotion, and sophistication, the sport requires only one thing – a ball. Therefore it can be played by anyone rich or poor, educated or not, urban or rural and young or old. Our children can take pride in being part of such a rich history, playing a game that has off-shoots such as beach soccer, soccer tennis, futsal and indoor which all use the same basic skills. When Robbie traveled to Kenya to study public health systems, he always had a crowd of kids surrounding him when he produced his soccer ball. The players were often barefoot, the grass knee high, and the goals two rocks marking the goal mouth, but the joy and language were universal. Soccer has a history that isn’t just tied to our own experiences, but makes us citizens of the world.