History of British football

Football has a long and storied history. How long, exactly, is a matter of opinion, but some date the sport back to the early part of the millennium, while others say its origins are even older. Setting a precise date is hard because football means different things to different people.

In some countries, it’s called soccer, British football, or association football, but to Britons, it’s just “football.” While the sport’s inception can’t be pinpointed, it has a unique history in Britain.

The Football Before Football

Countless civilisations have played sports with leather balls on grass fields throughout time. There was a game called tchatali in Mesoamerica 3,000 years ago, the cuju game in China that dated to the 3rd century BC, kemari in Japan and marn gook, played by the Australian Aboriginals. During the Middle Ages, any sport involving a ball and a grass field was called football in Britain.

In the 19th century, a push for official football rules and leagues began in Britain. This need for regulations was born from the matches that used to be played with no restrictions or player limits. A game of football in Britain before these rules was chaos—so much so that there are dozens of obscure medieval laws that explicitly banned town-wide matches.

The first regulation established was that football could only be played on wide grass fields where it wouldn’t cause problems. Eventually, others started developing more intricate rules, such as the Rugby School Rules of 1845, Eton College’s from 1847 and the Cambridge Rules of 1856. 

The Inception of Association Football

Eventually, the different sets of rules came together into one universal version of gameplay. In 1863, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, a solicitor from Hull, created the Football Association (FA) and became its first secretary. Through the FA, Hull created the first “Laws of the Game,” a unified code for how association football should be played. A key part of the FA’s rules was that the game must be played by dribbling and passing the ball, not handling it.

Various schools across Britain joined the FA, including Forest School, Charterhouse, Westminster, Eton College and Harrow. Others, such as the Rugby School, opted out, leading to the creation of Rugby football. Association football eventually spread from schools to other groups, like factory and railway workers. These players would form amateur football clubs to play against on the weekends.

A few years later, in 1873, the Scottish Football Association was formed, famously favouring the passing game more than the dribbling style popular in England. It wasn’t until 1921 that Ireland formed its own Football Association, as sports such as Gaelic football, rugby and hurling were more popular there—and remain so today.

The early days of the FA are often romanticised; it was played on a strictly amateur level because the FA banned professional teams. Association football spread like wildfire through Britain, along with another famous counterpart: rugby football.

It wasn’t long until so many teams played in the FA that a tiered system of multiple divisions had to be created. This system didn’t look the same as today’s football pyramid, but there were higher and lower divisions, with teams fighting for promotions or to avoid regulation, similar to Queen’s Park Rangers’ current fight for survival

Going Professional

As time passed, people began looking for ways to make money on football. Even though the FA was only amateur-level then, the tournaments were played in front of spectators who were charged a fee. During the 1880s, many teams, especially those in the north of England, started hiring players known as “professors of football.”

These professors, mainly from Scotland, aimed to give a team an edge over their competitors. It worked; the teams from Northern England began outplaying the amateurs from the South, and the FA eventually allowed professional football players and teams.

This change became official in English football in 1885 and Scotland in 1893. The move was controversial at the time because many thought it would ruin the integrity of the game. Many clubs, such as the famous Scottish team Queen’s Park (not to be confused with London’s Queen’s Park Rangers), refused to go professional and remained strictly amateur. Queen’s Park stuck to their guns until 2019, when they became a professional football club.

The Premier League

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the next significant change in football occurred. The English Premier League was created in 1992, and the Scottish Premier League followed suit in 1998. Many saw this as another attempt to make money, and that’s essentially true. The Premier Leagues were created when the top teams in either country decided the associations’ financing and monetisation rules didn’t suit them, so they made their own leagues instead.

Both Premier Leagues made agreements with their FAs on new financial rules. As a result, the Premier League is now the first division of English football, with the second being the Championship division and the third, confusingly, called the First Division.

Like the switch to professional players in the 1880s, it’s hard to argue that the creation of the Premier Leagues was bad for football when the sport is so popular worldwide. People, clubs, and investors are always looking for new ways to optimise their finances, whether by looking for sports betting bonuses offered by leading sites or reinventing entire global sports.

Women’s Football and the Women’s Super League

Another major shakeup in football was the emergence of women’s football and the creation of the Women’s Super League in England and similar leagues in other countries. While some still look down on women’s football, the numbers show that women’s football is  faster than any other sport in the world today. This trend is significant because the English FA had a total ban on women playing the sport from 1921 to 1970.


Football is the most popular sport globally, and it’s no surprise. Whatever you think about the twists and turns in the sport’s history, they do make one wonder what the next great shakeup in football will be.