There’s no question about it – soccer is the most played sport in the world by a significant margin. According to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), more than 240 million people play soccer worldwide. How did we get here? The origins of soccer trace back over 3,000 years ago to ancient Mesoamerican cultures where the game was played with a rock and the captain of the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods. The first iterations of the game being played with a ball trace back to ancient Chinese, Roman, Greek, and Central American societies.
While the origins of soccer are spread all over the world, Britain is credited with transforming it into the game it is today. Originally, the British would play a different version which involved punching and kicking of the ball as well as much more violence than the modern game. However, this was eventually forbidden as it caused rampage in the streets and sometimes death. It would later be brought back in the 17th century, but it took a long time for soccer to evolve a different set of characteristics than rugby. Eventually, Britain would develop a new set of rules in which touching of the ball with the hands was not allowed, nor was the tripping of opponents.
The popularity of soccer grew as the industrial revolution evolved in England. This meant more people were situated in centralized places (factories, shops, etc.) and soccer was utilized as a form of entertainment which also helped these co-workers bond in a team setting. Eventually, tickets began to be sold to these matches and the best players would often see a massive draw of fans. Therefore, teams started to pay these players to play for their team – this was the beginning of the professionalization of the sport.
For a long time, soccer was just a British phenomenon, but through the 1800s it began to spread to other countries in Europe – the first international tournament was played in 1883 between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. This was during the era of British colonialization, and several British factory workers were situated in far-away foreign lands such as Argentina and Sweden. These British workers were integral in introducing the game of soccer to a wide foreign audience. As foreign popularity grew, individual countries began to develop their own domestic leagues. Additionally, the international play grew to a larger scale and the World Cup evolved into what it is today – the biggest individual sporting spectacle in the world.
Leagues to Know:
This should serve as a cheat sheet to help you remember which major domestic league is in each country. It’s important to remember that practically every country has multiple soccer leagues, but this is a list of the top-flight league in each of the major countries.
England: English Premier League
Spain: La Liga
France: Ligue 1
Italy: Serie A
Portugal: Primeira Liga
United States: Major League Soccer
Players on Each Team: 11 on the pitch, 5-7 on the bench
Field Dimensions: The size of the pitch is flexible but it is between 100-130 yards long and 50-100 yards wide
Length of Game: Two 45-minute halves plus stoppage time, in some formats there is extra time of two 15-minute halves
Basic Play: There are two goals on either side of the pitch in which one of the two teams is attempting to score by kicking the ball into the back of the net. Offsides rules dictate where players can stand on the field – if a player is standing beyond the last line of defenders of the opposing team and a teammate passes that player the ball, the referee will call for offsides. When a team is in possession, its players will pass the ball around for a few different purposes. The first is to move the ball upfield into an attacking position. The second is to maintain possession in midfield, a more conservative approach but still with the goal of building an eventual attack. Third, the team might pass the ball back to its defenders or goalkeeper in order to take the heat off the midfield if the opposing team is building towards an attack. The only player who can use his hands during the game is the goalkeeper – the player wearing gloves who protects his team’s goal from being scored on. The rest of the players can only use their hands in one scenario – a throw-in. A throw-in occurs when the ball goes over the white line on the sideline – this is known as the touch line. The game starts with a kickoff in the middle of the pitch and runs for 45 minutes plus stoppage with no timeouts or breaks.
In soccer, there are 11 players on the pitch for each team at all times. These players can be split into a variety of formations, but the basic layers of the team are the defenders, midfielders, and forwards (attackers).
Goalkeeper: The goalkeeper is, as their name suggests, the player who keeps the opposing team from getting the ball into the goal. They are typically very tall and lanky players with quick reflexes and the ability to cover a lot of space in the net. A great goalkeeper can easily be the difference between a win and a loss in soccer with scores typically being low.
Fullbacks: Each soccer team will play one left-back and one right-back – these are the defenders who play out wide on either side. Oftentimes these defenders will be known as “wing-backs”, which means they are responsible for participating in the attacking play as well. Fullbacks’ main responsibilities include defending against the opposing team’s wingers and contributing to moving the ball to the midfield on the flanks.
Center Backs: These are the defenders who play on the interior of the back third of the pitch. They are typically stronger and more physical players than fullbacks, although usually not as fast. The center backs are the last line of defense before the opposing team reaches the goal.
Midfielders: As their name suggests, midfielders play in the middle of the field. They can be further broken down into defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders. These players fill a variety of roles from defending to shooting. They are also the players relied upon to control possession for their team and set up passes to move play forward carefully and strategically.
Wingers: Wingers play on the outside of the pitch in the attacking third and are responsible for either making passes into the striking players or making runs into the box from the outside. Wingers are usually the fastest players on the pitch as they have to cover the most ground and usually have great footwork specifically with dribbling and passing.
Strikers: Strikers traditionally play in the middle of the attacking third, at the top of their team’s formation. The striker is the player who is most relied upon to score goals and they will receive passes from the wingers or midfield in order to do so. Aerial ability is always a plus for strikers as headers can be a very effective way to score goals. Strikers are usually some of the stronger players on the pitch but must also have above-average finesse and footwork in order to succeed.
There are a variety of offenses that may be called in soccer. Illegal actions that will illicit a foul whistle from the referee include kicking, tripping, jumping into, charging into, pushing, illegally tackling, or holding an opponent, as well as touching the ball with your hands (a handball). The following are the offenses which a ref will call based on the severity of the foul:
Free Kick: This will be called for any penalty that takes place outside of the box and results in the referee blowing his whistle to stop play. These can often be high-level scoring opportunities depending on how close to the net the attacking team is.
Penalty Kick: If the defensive team has a player called for any type of a foul inside of the box they are defending, the attacking team will be awarded a penalty. This includes a handball, as well. If a penalty kick is awarded, the attacking team will select one player to have a shot on goal in a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper from inside the box.
Yellow Card: Cards are up to the discretion of the referee, but for more serious challenges the player in question may be handed a yellow card. If a player receives two yellow cards in one game, they are automatically ejected. In some tournament competitions, if a player receives a yellow card in two consecutive games, they are unable to play in the third game. If a player receives a yellow card it usually results in their increased caution for the remainder of the contest so as to not be ejected.
Red Card: For the most serious offenses, the referee will produce a red card – this automatically results in the disqualification of the player in question from the contest. A red card can be shown for any type of serious foul, any violent action, the use of inflammatory language, or the use of a player’s hands in a direct attempt to protect their own goal.
Advantage Rule: The referee doesn’t always have to stop play if there is a foul. If the referee suspects a penalty, they can hold off on blowing their whistle only if it enables the team whose player was fouled to gain a better position on the pitch. For example, if the attacking team is fouled but they are still able to advance the ball into the final third, the referee will not call the penalty as the stoppage in play would benefit the defending team.
Assist: Similar to in basketball, a pass that leads directly to a teammate’s goal is known as an assist.
Bicycle Kick: This occurs when a player jumps in the air and with both feet off the ground hits the ball overhead as they are facing away from the goal. This is arguably the highest degree of difficulty shot in soccer and is absolutely spectacular when a player pulls it off.
Box: The larger area surrounding each goal is known as the penalty box – it is sometimes known as the 18-yard box.
Clear: When a player boots the ball away from their defending goal with much power and not much direction, it is known as a clearance.
Header: Like the name suggests, a header is when the offensive player makes contact with the ball with their head, usually in an offensive position.
Offside: If a player is standing beyond the position of the final defender on the pitch, they are known as offsides. In every game, there is a linesman whose singular duty it is to track whether or not players have drifted into the offside position.
Promotion and Relegation: Unlike all American sports, most international soccer leagues depend on a system of promotion and relegation. In this, the lowest teams in the standings of a particular league will be relegated to the next-lowest league at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the top handful of teams in the next-lowest league will be promoted up a league and take the places of the relegated teams.
Transfer Fee: In soccer, players are not moved around teams freely. Teams must negotiate what is known as a transfer fee – essentially one team charges another for transferring the services of their employed player.
Volley: If a ball is kicked while it is in mid-air it is called a volley. This can include the ever-illustrious bicycle, scorpion, or scissor kicks which involve the player being in mid-air along with the ball.
Frequently Asked Questions
Soccer matches last for 90 minutes total and are split into two 45-minute halves. This doesn’t include stoppage time, which is subjectively awarded by the referee after the 45 minutes are up based on injuries or fouls that took place during the half. Soccer matches can either end in a tie or sometimes go to extra time which consists of two 15-minute halves.
Each team will place eleven players on the field for a match, with usually up to three substitutes allowed per side. One player is a goalkeeper, who plays in the net, and the other ten are split into defenders, midfielders, and forwards.
The best soccer talent is typically concentrated in Europe, where the most money can be made by the players. Each country has multiple leagues with a tier-based system. The top leagues in the world are the following – Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy), Ligue 1 (France), Eredivise (Netherlands), Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (Brazil), Primera Liga (Portugal), Liga MX (Mexico).
The best teams in European soccer play in what is known as the UEFA Champions League. The top handful of teams in each of the top European domestic leagues will qualify for a place in the Champions Leauge and can compete against the best teams in Europe. Real Madrid are by far the most successful Champions League side of all time, having won the prestigious trophy 13 times. AC Milan has won the 2nd most with seven.
During a soccer game, the official can brandish a card for offenses that affect the flow of play and are deemed to be excessive. Cards can be handed out for a variety of things ranging from aggressive tackles to handballs to holding an opponent. A red card is given for the most major offenses and results in a player being ejected from the game. A yellow card is given for a slightly less major offense and if a player earns two yellow cards in the same game they will be ejected.
American sports leagues don’t feature a promotion/relegation system, but most international soccer leagues do. Domestic leagues are organized in a hierarchy and if a team finishes in the top three spots of a lower-level league, they will have the opportunity to jump up one league. If a team finishes in one of the last few spots in a higher-level league, they will be relegated down to the lower league and replaced by those teams who are being promoted.
This question inspires some debate, but there are two clear choices at the moment. Lionel Messi, the Argentinian FC Barcelona forward, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese Juventus forward, are the two top players in the world. The French youngster Kylian Mbappe who currently plays for PSG has a strong chance to join them at the top in the near future.