“Any lower boy in this house who does not play football once a day and twice on a half holiday will be fined half a crown and kicked,” read a mid-19th-century notice at British private school Eton College. Not long after Britain’s parliament banned the sport from public streets in 1835, football became central to private schools across the country. Teachers hoped that the team structure would teach hierarchy and fraternity, while the exercise, some hoped, might exhaust the animal urges that drove boys to indulge in masturbation and homosexuality.
School rules banned tripping, holding, kicking ankles and running with the ball in your hands. Safer than hockey or rugby, this gentler game spread to working-class men eager for a sport that wouldn’t cause lost days of work. By the end of the 19th century, popular enthusiasm led to the creation of a national football tournament, a network of clubs throughout the country and an emerging pool of professional players. Migrant British coal workers in Huelva, Spain, founded that country’s first team in 1878. Two Scottish industrialists in Genoa rented a training pitch to the first Italian team in 1890. British influence brought football to Cairo, Kolkata, Rio de Janeiro, Auckland and Beijing. But when FIFA, the first international football organization, was created in France in 1904, England refused to join. The game’s founders weren’t interested in foreign football.
Too late. The world’s most popular game had been born. Over a century later in 2010, one in seven people on the planet simultaneously stopped what they were doing to watch the men’s World Cup final. Indonesia now has more footballers than England, according to the latest FIFA survey. The world’s top female player is a Brazilian who plays for Sweden; and an Argentinean playing for a Spanish team is the highest-paid male footballer, earning 250 times more a year than United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon. And although English club Manchester United is the world’s most popular team, according to a 2012 market survey, 99 percent of its fans are outside the UK. Accordingly, some English football fanatics are finally looking abroad for inspiration. “Our national team hasn’t won anything in 30 or 40 years,” says Noor Dunn, 42, an amateur goalkeeper in London’s Hackney & Leyton Sunday Football League. “I’m with Argentina.”
China, where football is thought to have originated, leads the world for total number of players: 25 million. But according to FIFA, the country with the highest concentration of footballers is Costa Rica, where one in four citizens play.
“The future of football is feminine,” claimed FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Women playing club football worldwide increased by 54 percent from 2000 to 2006, but the world’s highest-paid female footballer, Brazilian Marta Vieira, still earns only one-50th of her male counterpart, Argentinean Lionel Messi.
More than half of the world’s registered football players are under 18. The USA, ranked first by FIFA for women’s teams, has more female youth players than any country. In Spain, ranked first for men’s teams, one in four top footballers came from its soccer academies.
Eighty-five percent of the world’s footballers are amateurs, according to FIFA. The UK’s most popular grassroots football championship is organized by the Hackney and Leyton League with about 100 matches played every Sunday on more than 80 fields on Hackney Marshes, London.