Travel back in time to Japanese culture, about 1,000 BC, and you'll likely observe players kicking a ball around on a small field - perhaps some of the earliest inklings of soccer. Or take a trip to South and Central America and you might find the Aztecs enjoying a game of Tlachtli. In perhaps less ancient times, around the second or thirds centuries BC, the Chinese are known to have skillfully maneuvered a hair and feather-filled, leather ball with their feet in a game called Tsu Chu. Evidence of this exists in a military manual dating to time of the Han Dynasty. The ball measured only 30 - 40 cm in width, and was aimed into a small net fastened to long bamboo canes. Variations of this technique in which the player had to use his feet, chest, shoulders and back, but not the hands, were also used.
About 500-600 years later, in Japan, you might come across a similar type of game, Kemari, which is still played today. This skillful yet less aggressive version involves a circular football. Players were less passionate about gaining possession of the ball, but the ball could not touch the ground. Kind of like modern hackey-sack.
Games similar to football were played by the Greeks, such as the lively game of Episkyros, and by the Romans in a game called Harpastum in which players divided into two teams kicked a small ball around a rectangular playing field. The field was bordered by boundary lines, and was divided into two by a center line. Rules were simple. You passed the ball over the opponents' boundary line. The game was a very popular spectator sport for about 800 years. The Romans brought the game to England, but whether it influenced modern-day soccer is unknown. The Celtics enjoyed a game of Hurling, which continues to be played in Cornwall and Ireland today. While some of soccer's earliest roots may be sketchy, what historians are certain about is that England and Scotland influenced what we now know internationally as football, or soccer.
According to texts preserved at the Munich Ethnological Museum in Germany, games like soccer were played between China and Japan at around 50 BC. Fast-forward to 611 AD in Kyoto, Japan, and you could definitely take a seat at what appeared to be a soccer game. And according to frescoes dating to the first century AD, the early Romans enjoyed ball games. In fact early Olympic games in Rome featured highly competitive soccer-type games. But because historians weren't as scrupulous about keeping records of sporting events as they were about religious movements, it's hard to say for sure how soccer spread from Asian into Europe.
In its early days, soccer was extremely aggressive. So much so, that of the 27-man team that competed at the early Olympic games, two-thirds of them had to be hospitalized. The game created so much clamor in fourteenth-century England that during King Edward's reign, anyone caught playing soccer was threatened with incarceration. The game lacked any semblance of order, and was considered a "useless practice". Following royal orders the game was silenced by the English police, and violation of the Law meant jail time and penance served in the Church.
But the Law didn't keep the bloody sport from being played nor gaining popularity. By 1681 the game had won England over and was officially sanctioned. By the 1800s, soccer matches were played in towns and villages throughout northern and middle England.
In 1815, the earliest soccer rules are recorded to have been followed at Eton college. The Cambridge Rules, a standardized set of rules, were set in 1848 and were employed at various colleges throughout England.
These rules were revised in 1863, and influenced the development of "Association Football". The game could now be played safely, and the size and weight of the ball was now standardized. The game was to be played no longer than an hour-and-a-half. Minority exponents of rugby-style football separated from the Association because they didn't want anyone getting in their way of how violently they could play, and how they could carry the ball. International football rules forbade handling of the ball, and within eight years the Association had 50 clubs. The first international competition, called the FA Cup, took place that year. By 1880, the League Championship was formed.
Before football gained much notoriety in Europe, international games in Great Britain were already drawing crowds of spectators. In around 1885 the FA began legalizing the professional football arena, and football (soccer) began to form national associations outside of Great Britain. The spread of the international sport began to gain momentum and was spread to other parts of Europe, namely the Netherlands, Denmark, New Zealand, and many others. By 1912, 21 national football associations had become affiliated with the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which by 1930 had numbered around 41, just in time for the first World Cup. By the Second World War those numbers had increased to 73, and by the turn of the century FIFA boasted a total 204 members around the world.
For a game once banned for being too chaotic and extreme, but ultimately unable to be suppressed by even the most powerful kings, soccer is the most watched international ball sport played in the world today. The World Cup played in the United States took in an estimated 33 million viewers around the world for a whopping 27 days, making it the single most watched sporting event in the world.