The 2014 Fifa World Cup.Crystian Cruz
A truly global sporting event, the FIFA World Cup is now nearing its final stages in Brazil. But how did soccer, or football as it is called in many parts of the world, grow so big? When and where did it all start?
Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming Dynasty watching a cuju game.Wikimedia Commons
Although feet-based games involving a ball can be traced to Babylonia, China and Egypt as early as 2500 B.C., the earliest form of soccer is generally thought to be a Chinese game called cuju. FIFA publicly confirmed in 2004 that "the very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries B.C. in China."
Called Cuju, meaning "kickball," the game prospered during the Han dynasty from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.
It involved kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through a small opening in a net fixed onto long bamboo canes. Players could use their feet, chest, back and shoulders but not their hands.
Playing kemari.Wikimedia Commons
Possibly influenced by cuju, the Japanese created in 600 B.C. the first form of football juggling -- a game called kemari. Lacking cuju's struggle for ball possession, kemari was all about keeping a deerskin covered ball stuffed with sawdust up in the air as long as possible.
Standing in a circle, players had to pass the ball to each other using their feet. The game continued until a player finally dropped the ball.
Aboriginal domestic scene showing Marn Grook playing.Wikimedia Commons
Several other ball kicking sports existed in the New World. The Native Americans would play a game called pahsaheman, in which men and women faced each other over a deerskin, oblong ball. Men were only allowed to kick the ball, while women could kick, throw, or carry it.
In Australia, indigenous people played Marn Grook, a game that existed for at least 2,000 years. Requiring elaborate foot skills, it featured high kicking and leaping for a possum skin ball.
Ancient Greek epsikyros player (left); Ancient Roman fresco depicts harpastum match(right). Gun Powder Ma/Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons
As the Roman Empire spread across Europe, a kicking and throwing game called harpastum became popular. Harpastum was derived from an ancient Greek game called epsikyros, and allowed the use of hands and feet as well as violent defense and attacks.
The game resembled rugby rather than soccer and then apparently evolved into a form of soccer.
Street football was banned in England from 1314 until 1681. At that time, King Charles II (right) gave the game royal patronage. Wikimedia Commons; National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons
The earliest record of a soccer sort of game can be found in England and dates to 1175. It was played in London streets by schoolboys and trade apprentices. "Hustling over large balls," the players caused "a great noise," King Edward II wrote in 1314 when he banned the game.
Several other British monarchs repeated the ban. Indeed, Henry VIII (1540) called it a "vulgar recreation."
But the game remained popular among working classes who kept playing it. In the 17th century, street football became so popular that King Charles II eventually legalized it in 1681.
A historical reenactment of Calcio in Florence.Lorenzo Noccioli/Wikimedia Commons
Another version of soccer, called "calcio," was played in Florence since at least 1410. No less than 27 men on each team played the game on a huge sandpit, trying to send the ball towards designated goals. In doing so, players were allowed to use their hands, making the game a mixture of violent rugby and soccer.
In 1580 Giovanni de' Bardi, A Florentine count, published the official rules of calcio. Several of these rules, such as the halfway line, the wearing of team colors, referees and referee assistants and specific playing positions, match those of modern soccer.
The Sheffield team pictured in 1890.Wikimedia Commons
The world's first soccer teams started to flourish in England during the mid-1800s. However, teams played following different rules.
The first standardized rules were written down in 1848 at Cambridge and ballgames divided into two sports, allowing the use of the hands (rugby) or forbidding the use of the hands (football).
In 1857 the first ever soccer club was founded in Sheffield. Other clubs existed already, but they were linked to schools, universities or rugby and cricket clubs. Sheffield FC used their own modified version of the Cambridge Rules and in 1860 competed against the local rivals Hallam in the "Sheffield" derby -- the world's first inter-club match.
Hand written "Laws of the game" for association Football drafted for The Football Association in 1863 on display at the National Football Museum, Manchester.Wikimedia Commons
The definitive set of rules was penned down in 1863, when several London-based clubs formed the Football Association (FA) and codified the first Laws of Football.
In 1871 the English F.A. Challenge Cup was launched; a year later Scotland and England played to a scoreless draw in the first international match, with Scotland introducing the concept of passing. The match was watched by some 4,000 spectators.
The 1930 World Champion Uruguay team.Wikimedia Commons
With soccer spreading rapidly worldwide, the need for an international governing body became urgent.
In 1909 representatives from Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland founded in Paris The Federation Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football) or FIFA.
Today FIFA comprises 209 national associations.
In 1930 FIFA launched the first World Cup. In the final, Uruguay defeated Argentina 4-2 in front of a crowd of 93,000 people. Since then, the championship has been awarded every four years, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War.
Referee John Langenus in the 1930 World Cup final; sprays foam to mark the free kick distance during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Wikimedia Commons; Michael Steele/Getty Images
From the times when Belgian referee John Langenus judged the first final of the World Cup in 1930 to the "vanishing spray" used by 2014 referees, soccer has never stopped fascinating people.
It is now the world's most widely viewed and followed sporting event.
Ironically China, the country from where it all begun, has appeared just once (in 2002) in World Cup history, losing all matches and failing to score a goal.