soccer, outdoor ball and goal game, also called association football or simply football. The first recorded game probably was that on a Shrove Tuesday in Derby, England, part of a festival to celebrate a victory over a contingent of Roman troops (a.d. 217). By 1175 the Shrove Tuesday soccer game was an annual event.

The sport remained popular for centuries in England under the name football. But the advent of rugby (1823) as a variant led to confusion. The London Football Association was formed (1863) to further the game that emphasized the kicking of the ball. This became known as association football and then, through abbreviation, as soccer. It was rapidly adopted in continental Europe, where it still generally goes under the name football. Other related sports called football are popular in countries including Ireland and Australia.

Soccer is the most popular international team sport, followed by vast, emotional audiences and associated at times with such events as the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras and oubreaks of mass hooliganism, notably by British supporters. It has long been secondary in the United States, though, where American football, a descendant primarily of rugby, dominates. Since the 1970s, American soccer has grown at many levels, from childrens' to collegiate; professional soccer, however, has achieved only sporadic success, with the birth and decline of several leagues as fan interest generally lagged. The most recent U.S. and Canadian professional league, Major League Soccer, played its first season in 1996 and now has 26 clubs.

International competition is regulated by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA; founded 1904), which sponsors the quadrennial (since 1930) World Cup competition and whose membership is larger than that of the United Nations. Soccer has been an Olympic event since 1900. The first Women's World Cup, in 1991, was won by the United States, where women's soccer has won more attention than men's; the women's competition was added to the Olympics in 1996. Sparked by these successes, a U.S. professional women's soccer league consisting of eight teams recruited from the best players worldwide began play in 2001, but it folded two years later. Subsequently, a series of U.S. women's leagues have been organized. Women's soccer leagues also exist in other countries, particularly in Europe.

The game is played on a grassy field usually 120 yd by 75 yd (110 m by 70 m). Centered on each end line is a goal, 8 yd (7.3 m) wide by 8 ft (2.4 m) high, backed with netting. A team consists of eleven players—traditionally a goalkeeper, two fullbacks, three halfbacks, and five forwards. Recent variants on these positions include the striker, a forward who remains close to the opponents' goal, and the sweeper, a roving defender. Play is continuous through two 45-min periods, and substitutions are severely limited. Overtime is played in case of a tie, and if no further scoring occurs, the match may be resolved with a series of alternating penalty kicks.

The object of the game is to advance an inflated spherical leather ball—about 28 in. (71 cm) in circumference—into the opponents' goal. The ball is kicked (often dribbled with short kicks) or advanced with other parts of the body, but only the goalkeeper may use the hands. Each goal counts one point. Penalties are various types of free kicks, depending on the infraction; a player may be ejected (without replacement) for a flagrant foul. Perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time is Brazil's Pelé; other modern notables have included David Beckham (England), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Diego Maradona (Argentina), and Zinadine Zidane (France).

See B. Glanville, Soccer (1968); T. Smits, The Game of Soccer (1968); A. Clues and D. Jack, Soccer for Players and Coaches (1980); J. Lever, Soccer Madness (1983).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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