Association football is arguably the biggest sport in the world. It boasts of a global audience, excellent grassroots development, massive stadiums, high-level competitions, and commercial success. It often dominates the headlines in many countries which reflects its impact on daily life and national identity. This rather long name came about as a way to differentiate it from other sports with similar gameplay. These days, it is mostly known simply as “football” in all countries except for Canada and the US which refer to it as “soccer”. This term is a shortened form of the word “association” that has evolved over time.
Our ancestors have been playing ball sports for thousands of years, including ones where participants had to kick the ball around. There is evidence that the ancient Chinese, Romans, Greeks, and Mesoamericans have developed their own versions independently. There are also comparable games from Korea, Japan, Greenland, America, Turkey, and Australia. The games went on in different forms all across Europe during the Middle Ages. Students and workers would bring their own balls while the elders would ride on horseback to watch the action. Paintings, illustrations, and sculptures that depict people playing with balls near their feet are on display at various museums.
Soccer as we know it today came about through the efforts of English public schools to create standard rules for the game in the 1800s. At that time, there were many different forms being played which made it difficult to teach in class and hold bigger competitions. Representatives of various schools went to Cambridge University to agree on the rules that they would follow. However, some non-academic clubs drew up their own rules. The efforts to consolidate continued and led to the creation of the sport’s governing body in England called The Football Association. By 1872, this organization was able to hold the first ever official international football match under their rules. In 1904, the international governing body known as FIFA was formed.
Now football enjoys unmatched prominence in the world of sports. There are clubs at youth, amateur, and professional levels in over a hundred countries. Over 270 million people play the game and around 3.5 billion fans watch the largest tournament, The World Cup. This beats the number of viewers for the Olympics itself. The elite names in the game are among the highest paid athletes in the world commanding over $100 million dollars in annual earnings. These come from both their club salaries and product endorsements. Fans are passionate about their favorite clubs and national teams. They watch the games live, make online bets, purchase kits, and play related video games. The players and matches have oftentimes influenced the politics of nations.
Now let’s go back to the basics of the game. Soccer is a team sport with each side having 11 players on the pitch. They play on a flat field with natural or artificial grass. The required dimensions vary depending on the type of match. For adult international matches, the maximum length is 110 meters while the maximum width is 75 meters. The goals are placed on the middle of the boundaries with the posts 24 feet apart and the crossbar 8 feet above the ground. Most have nets behind them to catch the ball, facilitate retrieval, and prevent balls from cross the posts from illegal angles.
One of the players is designated as the goalkeeper who is responsible for guarding the goal. Keepers prevent balls from getting inside the goal posts using their entire body. They are the only players allowed to use their hands and arms as long as they are within the penalty area. The other players can take on the roles of striker, midfielder, and defender. Coaches can adopt a variety of formations to maximize the strengths of the team and react to their opponent’s style of play. Defenders help the goalkeeper during attacks. Midfielders push the ball forward and set up openings for the striker, who needs to convert opportunities into points.
The ball was initially made of leather but now synthetic material has taken its place. It weighs between 14 and 16 ounces. It has a circumference that ranges from 27 to 28 inches. Teams go head-to-head for 90 minutes of play broken down into two halves. The referee might add more time due to the lost minutes from injuries, substitutions, and other forms of stoppage. Players are required to wear the basic kit during matches composed of socks, footwear, shirt, shorts, and shin guards. There is no requirement to use headgear but players are allowed to wear one for protection. Anything that could endanger the players are forbidden.
The main objective of the players is to score a point by placing the ball inside the opponent’s goal. It has to go between the posts and under the bar for this to be considered as legitimate. The team with the most goals when the buzzer signals the end of the match wins. It is possible and quite common for games to have no goals scored. This is a credit to the defense of both teams. They can also have the same number of goals which results in a tie. In most matches, no further action is necessary.
In others where each game needs a clear winner, the tie has to be broken in various ways. The match can go into extra time that consists of two 15-minute periods. If the tie persists after this, then the winner has to be decided via penalty shootouts. Each team gets five chances to shoot the ball into the goal with a different player making these shots. They alternate turns with the shootout ending once one side gets an insurmountable lead. It’s one-on-one against the goalkeeper every time like in a penalty kick. For two legged ties, the team with more away goals will win.
Teams can score only when the ball is in play. This begins from the kick-off to the end of the period, although this may be interrupted when the ball leaves the field or when the game is put to a halt by the referee. They the ball is considered out of play and the game will have to be restarted to continue. This may be through another kick-off, a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner kick, a penalty kick, a dropped ball, a direct free kick, or an indirect free kick. The referee can caution players with a yellow card for misconduct. A red card is an outright dismissal from the game.
The Women’s Game
Women have been playing sports since time immemorial. There is evidence that earlier civilizations had women enjoying the early forms of football. Frescoes in China have survived depicting this scene. Even in the modern era, there are records of women playing the game in the late 1800s. In fact, rules were introduced to lessen the violence and make the sport more attractive to female players. It took the upheavals of the First World War to make women’s football to the mainstream. Since men were off to fight in the trenches, women had to fill their place in the factories. These companies had organized football teams that competed in local and international matches.
Despite drawing large crowds, the lack of organizational support and outright derision from some powerful people prevented women’s football from reaching its potential. It wasn’t until the late 1960s at the height of the feminist movement that women’s association football was organized in the UK. UEFA also voted for the official recognition of women’s football in 1971. However, it took twenty years before the first Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991. Just like the men’s version, it is held every four years. There has also been a women’s event for football in the Olympics since 1996.
These competitions serve to increase the profile of the women’s game with the tournaments attracting more spectators every time they are held. The rivalries of the national teams have provided interesting stories and colorful personalities that made people pay attention. Some of the leading voices in the game have even called for equal pay between genders. The most popular players are now playing around the world in various professional leagues with the US and Europe leading the way. Japan, a former champion, is also beginning its own pro-league soon. A semi-professional league has been around since 1989.