Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport, and for good reason—beloved by at least 265 million people worldwide, it’s easy to play in a random yard or field and instantly relate to the players racing across stadiums like the ones in Qatar hosting this year’s World Cup.
But if you’re looking for the earliest ancestor of all that running, kicking, and cooperating, be ready to turn back your watch, spin your globe—and make sure not to literally lose your head. Here’s what you need to know about soccer’s ancient origins and why it’s the world’s favorite sport today.
Soccer’s ancient origins
The Chinese were the first to get their kicks by kicking balls into nets for sport in the third century B.C., and the game known globally as football was formalized in England in the 19th century. But the predecessor of most modern ball games can be found in the Americas. (See vintage pictures of soccer players around the world.)
“The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica,” says Mary Miller, a professor of the history of art at Yale University who has studied extensive evidence of the sport.
In Mesoamerica, the vast historical region spanning from Mexico to Costa Rica, civilizations flourished well before Columbus “discovered” them, and many of these people played a sport that involved a heavy ball made from a substance derived from tree resin.
It’s unclear exactly where the game was invented, but it was popular across Mesoamerican cultures like the Teotihuacanos, Aztecs, and Maya beginning about 3,000 years ago. Its name varied—ullamaliztli in Aztec, pok-ta-pok or pitz in Maya. So did its rules, which included moves such as keeping the ball in play by bumping it with body parts or using racquets or bats. (Who were the Maya? Decoding the ancient civilization's secrets.)
Many of these games were played with 16-pound rubber balls, which still exist in the archaeological record. Other evidence of game play ranges from ceramic vessels to more than 1,300 large stone courts that can be found across the region.
Aztec players bounced the ball back and forth between teams using only their hips and buttocks (feet or hands were off limits). They tried to hit the back wall of their opponents’ courts with just one bounce, often sustaining life-threatening injuries when they were hit with the hard, heavy ball. If a player managed to get it into a high ring on the opposing team’s side, it was an automatic win—and a major honor for the winner.
Though it was played as an everyday pickup sport, much like soccer or basketball, this ball game also held a sacred place in religion and warfare for Mesoamerican cultures. Aztec kings reportedly played it as a substitute for war, gaining ruling rights or diffusing diplomatic dramas with a game of ball. In Maya and Veracruz cultures, the stakes were even higher: The losers of some ritual games were sacrificed.
The specifics are unclear, but some courts are decorated with panels depicting the gory sacrifice of losing players. Sacrifice and sport are closely related in a Maya creation myth, too: It shows a pair of ball-playing twins defeating the lords of the underworld on the court. They go on to become the sun and the moon.
Despite evidence that the losers sometimes got the literal axe, says Miller, some 20th-century archaeologists refused to believe that anyone except the winners were killed. “They couldn’t believe that the Maya committed human sacrifice,” she said. “We now know that’s absolute hooey, and so is the notion that any victorious player would be sacrificed.” In Maya mythology, the loser of the ball game is decapitated, and today’s scholars widely accept that losers, not winners, got the chop.
British schools invent a new incarnation
Though other cultures like Native Americans and Indigenous Australians played similar games, the modern sport that some people know as soccer—and many others know as football—was birthed in British schools. Although they had played variations of the game informally for centuries, the sport became formalized in the 19th century.
In the mid 19th century, developments in transportation, labor, and technology gave people the leisure and means to travel to competitive matches on mown lawn fields. By the 1840s, a variety of British schools created their own standards of play, making it possible to hold tournaments among players who all knew the same rules.
Over time, two competing rule sets began dominating the sport. The Sheffield Football Club allowed teams a free kick if their competitor disobeyed the rules of play. Cambridge University forbade players to carry the ball in their hands. (Looking back on more than 150 years of English football’s most prestigious cup.)
As the sport’s popularity ballooned, players banded together in the London Football Association. In 1877, Sheffield officially adopted the so-called “London Rules.” By then, some teams had begun to recruit widely, secretly paying working-class league members.
Upper-class footballers wanted the sport to remain amateur. But in 1885, they finally agreed to allow professional players, enabling a further boom in the sport. By 1904, the sport was so popular it had gone international, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) began that same year.
Soccer’s success skyrocketed from there. After the sport debuted in the 1908 Olympic Games and the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, professional soccer flourished. Today, FIFA remains the sport’s governing body, raking in $755.5 million in 2021 alone.
But the heart of the sport has always been on the field, where everyone from small children to seasoned pro athletes can enjoy the action. Soccer’s spirit, which Miller calls one of “intricate team thinking,” is alive and well both in modern incarnations of the ball game and the millions of amateur and pro players who run, weave, and kick their way down an official or makeshift soccer pitch every day.